By John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press ServiceJuly 12, 2007
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, July 12, 2007) - Coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of al Qaeda members in Iraq over the past two months, including 26 of the terror network's "high-value" leaders and a would-be bomber, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman said.
Speaking with reporters in Baghdad yesterday and during a conference call with bloggers later in the day, Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said combined forces also have shut down an important terrorist information artery, and he described the cumulative results of these operations.
Brig. Gen. Bergner said successes are occurring in spite of ongoing resistance from al Qaeda, proxy groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps -- or Quds force -- and their Lebanese Hezbollah surrogates, and other foreign fighters drawn to Iraq.
The 26 terrorist leaders slain or seized during May and June include 11 emirs -- city or local al Qaeda leaders -- and five of their terrorist unit commanders. Seven are facilitators who smuggled foreigner fighters, weapons and money into Iraq; and three were car bomb-network chiefs, Brig. Gen. Bergner said.
The general called al Qaeda in Iraq "the principal near-term threat," and said the Iraqi government and security forces with coalition partners are engaged in a tough fight against the terror network's "extremist ideology and leadership."
"In their own statements, al Qaeda leaders have declared Iraq their central front. Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates are the greatest source of spectacular attacks and are fueling sectarian violence," he said.
Stoking Iraq's al Qaeda cells are foreign extremists who are bent on planting a new caliphate, or Islamic-based theocracy, in the country, the general said. Al Qaeda senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri articulated this vision in a recent video.
"They claim the al Qaeda gateway to victory starts in Iraq," he said. "Their goal continues to be a Taliban-like state featuring an extreme and distorted vision of Islam, forbidding the most basic personal freedoms."
Coalition forces struck a blow against the terror network's propaganda campaign when they uncovered an al Qaeda media center near Samarra in June. The center, equipped with a film studio and capable of making 156 CDs in eight hours, was used to produce and distribute data that included highlights of recent improvised-explosive-device and car-bomb attacks, Brig. Gen. Bergner said. Inside the building, forces found 65 hard drives, 18 "thumb drives," more than 500 CDs, and 12 personal computers containing recruiting and other terrorism-related materials.
"It produced CDs, DVDs, posters, pamphlets and Web-related propaganda products, and contained documents clearly identifying al Qaeda in Iraq's intent to use media as a weapon," he said.
The media center played an important role in al Qaeda's recruitment efforts in Iraq and around the world, Brig. Gen. Bergner said.
Other encouraging signs in Iraq, he said, are the roughly 23,000 tips that local residents have fed coalition forces, and the emergence of "support councils" in Salah ad Din and Diyala provinces, and increased cooperation from tribal sheiks in Anbar province.
In Anbar's capital city of Ramadi last week, Iraqi police captured a foreign fighter who had been recruited and smuggled into the country by facilitators.
"He was recruited by a man who attended his mosque to join an al Qaeda unit in Iraq and kill coalition forces after listening to radical messages on cassette tapes and becoming interested in Jihad," Brig. Gen. Bergner said.
Describing facilitator's methods, Brig. Gen. Bergner said the recruit received $1,000 for travel expenses and was told to obtain a passport and head to Syria. There, he met the Syrian facilitator who arranged for his entry into Iraq, a journey that required the recruit to wear a blindfold and cover himself with blankets while he laid in the backs of cars, swapping vehicles multiple times en route to Iraq.
"Once across the border, the Syrian handed him off to another facilitator who drove him to a small mud structure in the middle of the desert," Brig. Gen. Bergner said. After hiding out in the desert abode for four days, the recruit was partnered with another fresh foreign recruit, and the two men were driven to a safe house Ramadi, a city where public sentiment has turned against al Qaeda, the general said.
The men learned 10 days later that they were selected to be suicide truck bombers. Their mission was to detonate the 1,000-pound explosive on each truck over a major bridge outside Ramadi, which the recruit claims he reluctantly agreed to, Brig. Gen. Bergner said.
"On July 1, the two men were driven to a location outside of Ramadi where they boarded two large trucks and followed their handler across the Ramadi bridge," the general said. "As they crossed the bridge, he changed his mind and did not manually activate the explosive device as directed. His partner, on the other hand, did detonate his explosive device, collapsing two of the four lanes."
The recruit, who currently is in coalition custody, tells a story that is not uncommon, Brig. Gen. Bergner said. About 60 to 80 foreigners per month are lured to Iraq by al Qaeda, with 70 percent gaining entry through Syria.
"Between 80 and 90 percent of the suicide attacks in Iraq are being carried out by foreign-born al Qaeda terrorists," he said. "And in the last six months, some 4,000 Iraqis have been killed or injured by the al Qaeda suicide attacks."