BAGHDAD (AFP) – A senior US commander said on Saturday that Al-Qaeda’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters into Iraq had been severely restricted, but that it was still a threat and would remain so.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan said that a deadly attack in Baghdad targeting Christians and explosions in Shiite neighbourhoods across the capital over the past week demonstrated that Al-Qaeda remained deadly.
The attacks “demonstrate that Al-Qaeda remains determined and dangerous,” said Buchanan, director for strategy for US forces in Iraq.
He said that American and Iraqi forces had “degraded” Al-Qaeda’s ability to plan and coordinate attacks, raise finance and recruit fighters inside Iraq.
“But I think Al-Qaeda remains a threat and will continue to remain a threat in the future,” he said at an informal round-table discussion with journalists in Baghdad.
Al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) said it was behind two attacks in Baghdad this week, one of them on a Christian cathedral last Sunday in which 46 worshippers were killed after being taken hostage.
Days later, a dozen booby-trapped vehicles exploded simultaneously in Shiite neighbourhoods across the capital, killing 64 people, according to interior ministry figures.
Asked about reports that foreign militants were involved in the assault on the cathedral, Buchanan said Al-Qaeda’s flow of foreign fighters joining its ranks had slowed to a trickle.
“We have had a significant impact on degrading the network that Al-Qaeda used to bring foreign fighters from other countries. But it has not been shut off,” he said.
“There are still a small number of foreign fighters that have been and continue to come across the border. Dominantly they have come through the Syrian border, but that does not mean they originate there.”
Survivors said that of the five gunmen who stormed the cathedral in the Karrada district in central Baghdad, only one was Iraqi, another apparently had a Syrian accent and three others spoke in a different Arabic dialect.
Buchanan said that Al-Qaeda was slipping in only “five to 10 percent” of the number of fighters it was bringing into Iraq a few years ago, without giving any figures.
Violence in Iraq has plunged since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but kidnappings and casualties from military and insurgent action remain routine.