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U.S.: Foreign fighters remain a threat in Iraq

A U.S. military official in Iraq said Thursday that while forces loyal to former President Saddam Hussein appear to be breaking up, the presence of foreign fighters remains a threat.
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. Army general in charge of central Iraq said Thursday that resistance from the former government was breaking up, but warned that U.S. forces faced a threat from Iraqi nationalists and foreign fighters.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division based in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, said the capture of the former dictator and other Baath Party loyalists had sharply reduced attacks on coalition troops in his area.

“I believe the former regime elements are fractured now. Coordination is down, their money is running out, their weapons are running out, so we’re seeing a lot less contacts,” Odierno said in interview with reporters at his headquarters.

He warned that those Iraqis who may not have been loyal to Saddam but still opposed to the U.S.-led occupation, and foreign fighters who had infiltrated the country in recent months, still posed a threat.

“(Iraqis) do not like foreigners in their country, and especially Syrians, Iranians, anyone who is on their border. They want Iraq for Iraqis,” Odierno said.

There are also those who will continue to attack because they do not like Westerners, he said, potentially including members of al-Qaida and other international groups.

“I do believe that they believe that this is the place they want to fight Western culture,” Odierno said. “I do think we’ll see more of a push on the part of the al-Qaida network trying to get in here in the next eight to 12 months.”

Odierno said the capture of Saddam had taken away a rallying point for Baathists and their dwindling hope the party would ever return to power.

The general will turn over his region, which stretches from north of Baghdad to the northern city of Kirkuk and east to the Iranian border, to the 1st Infantry Division in two months.

Capturing Saddam last month as he hid in a small hole near Tikrit was the single biggest accomplishment of his tenure, he said, and reward for all the soldiers who had lost comrades in the war and risked their lives daily.

“Knowing that we were able to capture him, which has made a difference both ... back in the United States and here on the ground, kind of validates why we’re here,” he said.

It also made a dent in attacks against U.S. troops, which Odierno said dropped by half from November to December and appeared to be dropping further in January.

The hunt for Saddam’s right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is growing hotter, and his capture would mark “the end of the former regime element resistance.”

“That doesn’t mean it will mark the end of the entire resistance, but the Baathists will be over. It won’t be over, but it will be different,” he said, referring to Iraqi nationalists and foreign fighters.

Odierno said he was ahead of where he thought he would be in cleaning up the area, but acknowledged he was behind schedule in terms of rebuilding Iraq’s battered infrastructure.

His rebuilding plans had counted on aid from the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, which have mostly steered clear of Iraq because of safety concerns.