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    Gates Says al-Qaida Trying to Spark New Round of Iraq Unrest 

    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the recent series of highly deadly bombings in Iraq is an attempt by al-Qaida to spark sectarian violence as U.S. troops reduce their security role.

    Secretary Gates says he spoke to top U.S. commanders in Iraq about the violence just a few days ago. "The judgment of the commanders is this is an orchestrated effort on the part of al-Qaida to try and provoke the very kind of sectarian violence that nearly tore the country apart in 2006," he said.

    Secretary Gates says al-Qaida in Iraq announced its plan about six weeks ago. He says the al-Qaida leadership is testing new security arrangements as U.S. combat forces prepare to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June, and to end their combat role throughout Iraq by August of next year. "They are clearly trying to take advantage of our drawdown, and particularly are drawing back away from the cities, to try and provoke a renewed round of sectarian violence," he said.

    Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates played down the concern expressed by one senator that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki is contributing to the unrest by refusing to talk to some Sunni opposition groups.

    "The latest information we have is that he is reaching out to some of the Sunni groups. He does have a problem with the Baathist Party and some of the people who worked for Saddam Hussein. But he is reaching out to other Sunnis in terms of political alliances," he said.

    In a commentary published Thursday, respected analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies also blames the violence on al-Qaida, saying its leaders will take advantage of any potential weakness - whether it is the change in the role of U.S. forces or a problem in the reconciliation process.

    "It's going to be several years before you can create effective Iraqi security forces, before you can get to the level of political accommodation that will make it easy to establish a real rule of law and create more effective security structures. Tragic as it sounds, we have to accept these levels of violence to occur until a great deal more progress takes place in Iraq. It will be a matter of years, not months or weeks," he said.

    Still, Cordesman says, it is important to note that the overall level of violence has not changed recently in Iraq, and is sharply down from last year. He says ending violence in Iraq will require consistent U.S. and Iraqi efforts to build the country's security forces, reconcile its diverse political factions and improve its economy. "In the interim," he writes, "there will be good and bad months, but no truly peaceful months."

    At a news conference Wednesday marking his 100th day in office, President Obama noted that al-Qaida has at least so far not been successful in sparking a new round of widespread ethnic violence in Iraq.

     

    "I think it's important to note that, although you've seen some spectacular bombings in Iraq that are a legitimate cause of concern, civilian deaths, incidents of bombings, etc., remain very low relative to what was going on last year, for example. And so you haven't seen the kinds of huge spikes that you were seeing for a time. The political system is holding and functioning in Iraq. Part of the reason why I called for a gradual withdrawal as opposed to a precipitous one was precisely because more work needs to be done on the political side to further isolate whatever remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq still exist," Mr. Obama said.

    At the request of senior military commanders, President Obama agreed to a 19-month timetable for the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, rather than the 16 months he had promised during the presidential election campaign. And he agreed that most of the U.S. combat troops could stay in Iraq until close to the end of that time period. A residual U.S. force will remain to train and support Iraqi forces until the end of 2011.

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