U.S. to focus on al-Qaida in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. commanders plan a summer of stepped up offensives against al-Qaida in Iraq as they tailor strategy to their expectation that Congress soon will impose a timeline for drawing down U.S. forces here.

The emphasis on al-Qaida, described by commanders in interviews here this week, marks a shift in U.S. plans away from Shiite militias and death squads inside Baghdad. It reflects the belief of some senior officers in Iraq that the Shiite militias likely would reduce their attacks once it became clear that a U.S. pullout was coming.

By contrast, they believe al-Qaida in Iraq could be emboldened by a pullout plan and must be confronted before one is in place.

When the administration began sending additional troops to Iraq, U.S. commanders spoke frequently of the threat posed by the Shiites’ al-Mahdi Army, and they issued thinly veiled threats against its leader, the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Although military leaders say Shiite militias loyal to al-Sadr remain a priority, al-Sadr has tacitly cooperated with the U.S. troop buildup, telling his followers to avoid confronting U.S. troops. He is also a key supporter of the U.S.-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Now, with the final infantry troops of the Bush administration “surge” strategy having arrived in Iraq, the military is increasingly focusing firepower against the Sunni side of Iraq’s civil war, especially al-Qaida in Iraq.

“These operations are more on towards Qaida because they … are the ones that are creating the truck bombs and car bombs that are having an effect … on the populace,” Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of day-to-day military operations, said this week. “So we are going after the safe havens that allow them to build these things without a lot of interference.”

Al-Qaida in Iraq is one of several Sunni Arab groups that have taken a high-profile role in the insurgency against U.S. forces. Its fighters are believed to include a significant number of non-Iraqis. Despite its name, the extent of the group’s links to Osama bin Laden has never been clear.

U.S. officials, who have been badly burned by previous claims of progress that turned sour, are offering only the most guarded of forecasts for the current offensives.

“This is the most diabolical enemy out there. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the top U.S. commander here, Gen. David Petraeus.

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