The leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and several of his top lieutenants have recently left Iraq for Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
In a report from Baghdad that quoted group leaders and Iraqi and US intelligence officials, the newspaper said there were also indications al-Qaeda was diverting new recruits from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda fighters have suffered serious setbacks in Iraq, but are making gains in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it said.
In a sign of increasing weakness, the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has dropped to 20 a month, down from about 110 a month last summer, the paper quoted a senior US intelligence analyst as saying.
“We do believe al-Qaeda is doing some measure of reassessment regarding the continued viability of its fight in Iraq and whether Iraq should remain the focus of its efforts,” the newspaper quoted Brigadier General Brian Keller, senior intelligence officer for General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, as writing in an e-mail.
But Keller cautioned that the US had not confirmed that recruits are being sent to Afghanistan or that al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders have gone there.
Abdullah al-Ansari, an al-Qaeda leader in Fallujah, told the daily that group leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri had traveled to Afghanistan through Iran.
“It’s not known yet whether he would come back or not,” he said, referring to Masri.
Petraeus spokesman Colonel Steven Boylan, however, said that the US could not confirm Masri’s whereabouts.
“Our current assessment is that he remains in Iraq.”
Some top Iraqi officials continue to say that Masri was killed last year, but the assertion has never been corroborated by the US military.
Keller said the US was unsure what the diversion of fighters to Afghanistan means.
“We continue to wrestle with the question of whether this represents a strategic shift on the part of al-Qaeda,” Keller wrote.
“We do know that al-Qaeda leaders will never give up entirely on Iraq, but they may in the future see Afghanistan or some other location yet to be determined as a place where their resources may be more effectively employed,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, a suicide car bomber rammed an explosives-laden vehicle against the wall of a police station near Mosul yesterday, killing three policemen and wounding four others, police said.
It was the fifth suicide attack in Iraq this week.
Four suicide bombers killed 57 people in Baghdad and Kirkuk on Monday.
Yesterday’s bombing occurred at a police station in the Qayara area about 50km south of Mosul, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In other news, the Iraqi parliament went into summer recess on Wednesday without resolving a key dispute holding up this year’s provincial elections, forcing the speaker to announce a special session to discuss a power-sharing formula in Kirkuk.
Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, adjourned the session as scheduled but ordered lawmakers to meet again on Sunday in a last-ditch effort to resolve the issue.
“The committee discussing Kirkuk could not find a solution and has asked for more time,” he said.
The impasse is expected to postpone provincial elections until December at the earliest — a blow to efforts to heal Iraq’s sectarian rifts.
The UN offered a possible compromise and suggested delaying a vote in Kirkuk while going ahead in other provinces. It suggested the parliament should wait for recommendations from a committee until Dec. 31 at the latest and fix a date for the vote in Kirkuk then.