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Ambassador: Al-Qaida leaving Iraq for Afghanistan

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By PAMELA HESS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - Al-Qaida's foreign fighters who have for years bedeviled Iraq are increasingly going to Afghanistan to fight instead, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States said Wednesday.

"We have heard reports recently that many of the foreign fighters that were in Iraq have left, either back to their homeland or going to fight in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is now seeming to be more suitable for al-Qaida fighters," said Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie.

Al-Qaida had training camps and a headquarters in Afghanistan, under the protection of the then-ruling Taliban, until the U.S. invaded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With al-Qaida forced out of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 quickly drew outside fighters there.

Sumaida'ie said al-Qaida is finding it now increasingly difficult to operate in Iraq, beginning with the rebellion of the largely Sunni tribes in Anbar Province in 2006 and 2007. Until then, al-Qaida had ruled by intimidation and violence, establishing physical control and setting up a shadow government in large swaths of Iraqi territory.

"There were large tracts that were run by al-Qaida, administered by al-Qaida — they had ministers, administrators, paid salaries and so on. This no longer exists, so they do not have any territory to control (where it) is safe for them to move in and around Iraq," he said. "In whole areas they ceased to operate as effective terrorist networks."

Sumaida'ie's comments echoed those of the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus told The Associated Press last week that al-Qaida appears to be reassessing its chances of success in Iraq.

"They're not going to abandon Iraq. They're not going to write it off. None of that," Petraeus said. "But what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan.

"We do think they are considering what should be the main effort," he said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reporting said foreign fighters are generally not leaving Iraq for Afghanistan, but new recruits to al-Qaida are being sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan instead of Iraq. The numbers in all countries are small, however. The vast majority of al-Qaida in Iraq are native born, and extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are overwhelmingly Pashtun fighters from the region.

Sumaida'ie's remarks come as Democratic presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is conducting an overseas trip which included stops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama toured two war zones with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

Last week they issued a written statement saying that Afghanistan and Pakistan's border area, where the Taliban is resurgent and Osama Bin Laden is believed to be hiding, should be the central front in the war against terrorism.

Monthly death tolls of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan surpassed U.S. military deaths in Iraq in May and June, even though there are far fewer coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Both Sumaida'ie and Petraeus warned, however, that security progress made in Iraq is not irreversible and al-Qaida could reassert itself there.

"If things break down in Iraq, they are capable of coming back," Sumaida'ie said.

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