Al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq has been severely weakened by a money squeeze, internal squabbling, a shortage of volunteer suicide bombers and more effective Iraqi efforts to snatch the terror group's foreign recruits when they slip across the border from Syria, a senior U.S. general said Thursday.
Maj. Gen. David Perkins, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division and of all U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said al-Qaida has suffered a "dramatic decrease" in local and foreign fundraising, to the point where members of the group are fighting over shrinking pieces of the financial pie.
"We are seeing, instead of foreign aid coming in, in large amounts, they're resorting to what I would call extortion, black marketing, robbery of jewelry stores, things like that," Perkins told reporters in a video link to the Pentagon from his base in Tikrit. "And it's devolving more into almost gang mafia-type activities. ... And so they are starting to, in some instances, turn against each other, which from our point of view is a good sign."
Northern Iraq, and particularly the city of Mosul and the Tigris River valley area, has for years been a hub for al-Qaida in Iraq.
Now, with U.S. forces preparing to leave Iraq, al-Qaida has become more of a criminal enterprise than a terrorist group, Perkins said. He asserted that U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police forces are getting better at using intelligence leads to capture and otherwise contain al-Qaida elements.
"Where we see that manifest itself is a dramatic decrease in numbers of attacks, especially your typical al-Qaida signature attacks, spectacular attacks, ones with a large amount of suicide folks involved," he said. "We see now more vehicle-borne explosive devices that are parked and detonated versus being driven and detonated, which means they're having a hard time getting people who are true believers to actually be the suicide folks."
Perkins said he has seen no clear evidence that the decline in numbers of foreign fighters crossing the border from Syria is connected to a 6-month-old anti-government uprising in Syria. He said Iraqi security forces have gotten better at border protection, in part because they are sharing intelligence more effectively.
Perkins also said that most of the 5,000 U.S. troops based in northern Iraq will be gone by the end of October. All U.S. forces are to leave by the end of the year, under a 2008 U.S.-Iraq agreement, although the two sides are now discussing the possibility of keeping some troops in Iraq beyond 2011.
In a reminder that northern Iraq remains dangerous, a U.S. soldier was killed there Thursday. Perkins offered no details of the death beyond saying the soldier was preparing to go out on an operation when he was killed by "indirect fire," meaning a rocket or mortar attack. It was the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since July.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP