'Spectacular attacks' forecast

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. military leaders said yesterday that they expect the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq to "lash out" soon in response to the American troop buildup with "spectacular attacks" designed to aggravate sectarian tensions.

With military officials set to submit a preliminary progress report on Iraq to Congress in the coming days, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. officials believe is linked to Afghanistan-based al-Qaida, is the principal threat to U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Iraq.

He also labeled the group "the main accelerant in sectarian violence," despite its small size and what U.S. officials say is a mostly foreign membership.

The renewed focus on foreign al-Qaida operatives in Iraq comes a week after Bergner laid out U.S. contentions that Iran has tapped Hezbollah militants in Lebanon to train insurgents who are fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.

It could foreshadow efforts by military leaders to argue that the conflict in Iraq is fueled by foreign intervention, which they have reduced in areas such as western Anbar province, rather than homegrown militias and sectarian unrest.

The U.S. military has focused this summer on offensives to unseat al-Qaida in Iraq and affiliated groups from Baghdad and a surrounding belt of cities and to win over local Sunni Muslim groups. Bergner said U.S. troops also are staging operations in cities such as Mosul in the north and Ramadi in the west to prevent displaced al-Qaida in Iraq fighters from resurfacing.

At an afternoon news conference in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Bergner said U.S. forces are better able to attack al-Qaida in Iraq because of the additional 28,500 troops ordered into the country this year by President Bush, new alliances with Sunni groups opposing al-Qaida in Iraq such as the Diyala Support Council, and increased support from Iraqi citizens.

Bergner said 60 to 80 foreign fighters arrive in Iraq each month, the vast majority through Syria, and they are enlisted by al-Qaida in Iraq for 80 percent to 90 percent of suicide bombings in Iraq.

Meanwhile, a key Iraqi minister responsible for drafting the latest version of the country's new oil law, seen by U.S. officials as a key benchmark for political progress here, said the new measure is too vague and will allow leaders in oil-rich areas, particularly the Kurdish north, to sign contracts with international oil companies without the national government's approval.

"This will be a disaster for the country," said Planning Minister Ali Baaban, a member of the main Sunni political bloc.

But Sami Askari, a Shiite member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political bloc, said the law will still require contracts to go before a central government council made up of members from various regions.

"Any contract which does not pass through this process will be void," Askari said, dismissing the planning minister's dire predictions.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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