BAGHDAD -- The departure of al-Qaida-affiliated fighters from Iraq to join the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria has had one benefit, Iraqi officials say: Violence has dropped in this country, in some areas by as much as 50 percent in just a few months.
Iraqi officials declined to provide precise figures for the drop-off or to estimate how many al-Qaida-affiliated fighters have left the country for Syria. But the impact of the departure, they said, has been especially apparent in Ninewah province, which borders Syria and has long been the scene of some of al-Qaida in Iraq's most violent bombings and assassinations.
The province's capital, Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, was once home to as many as 800 al-Qaida-affiliated fighters, U.S. officials estimated last summer. But one provincial security officer said al-Qaida in Iraq attacks in Mosul have become infrequent this year, and the attacks that do occur generally are small or are detected before they can be carried out. The officer spoke only on the condition of anonymity because regulations prohibit him from talking to reporters.
"Violence is down in Mosul, maybe one or two operations per day, sometimes none," the officer said Monday. "Today, members of (al-Qaida in Iraq) attempted to booby-trap a house, but they were discovered and the operation failed. Yesterday, two IEDs" -- improvised explosive devices -- "were planted and both were discovered, and they failed again. The day before that there were no operations at all."
As for the rest of the province, "I can say that violence is down more than 50 percent since autumn of 2011, and much more than that if compared with an earlier date, like autumn of 2010," the officer said.
Last Thursday, James R. Clapper, the Obama administration's director of national intelligence, told Congress that the United States thought al-Qaida-affiliated fighters were responsible for the most spectacular rebel attacks on Syrian military forces in recent months, including suicide bombings in Damascus in December and January and two attacks earlier this month in Aleppo. The four attacks, which targeted Syrian military or intelligence facilities, killed at least 70 people.
Clapper called the presence of al-Qaida-affiliated fighters in Syria a "disturbing phenomenon" and warned that the anti-Assad rebels "in many cases may not be aware they are there."
Iraqi officials said they'd suspected for months that al-Qaida-affiliated fighters, who flocked to Iraq after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, were leaving for Syria.
"For some time now al-Qaida members have been heading toward Syria to fight there, and as a result violence has gone down and we witness a much smaller number of operations carried out, overall, in Iraq," Col. Yahya al-Ubaidi, an Iraqi intelligence officer, told McClatchy Newspapers. He said violence had dropped throughout Iraq since late last year.
Iskander Witwit, the deputy chairman of Parliament's security committee, said the nature of some of the attacks in Syria had alerted Iraqi officials months ago to the likelihood that al-Qaida-affiliated fighters had transferred their efforts to the anti-Assad cause.
"Their activities in Syria are clear to the eyes of all who know their hallmark: the bombings, the random killing, but the suicide bombings especially," Witwit said.
(Issa is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
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