Fear as US troops move out of Iraqi cities

By Patrick Cockburn

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Government expects al Qaeda and Baathist insurgent groups to launch a wave of attacks so they can take credit for forcing the United States military to leave Iraqi cities by the end of the month, according to a senior Iraqi minister.

An American military team was dispatched from Baghdad to Damascus at the weekend to demand that Syria help choke off a guerrilla offensive by imposing greater control over its border with Iraq, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Independent.

"I think the American rapprochement with the Syrians will be judged more by their co-operation, not in Lebanon, but in Iraq," said Zebari. "This is a good moment for them to come clean." Although Syria had been more co-operative with Iraq than in the past, guerrilla fighters are still crossing over the border, he added.

The top US military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, confirmed this week that the American military withdrawal from Iraqi cities would take place as agreed under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated last year. Some 133,000 US troops will remain in Iraq but the knowledge that they too will be withdrawn by the end of 2011 makes Iraq a more tempting target for neighbouring states seeking to expand their influence within the country.

"The purpose of the US military team going to Damascus is to urge Syria to do more to prevent foreign fighters from coming here," said Zebari. "According to our intelligence analysis al Qaeda, the Baathists and all armed groups will escalate the violence just to prove that they have won a victory.

"They want to say it was the sons of the resistance, not Prime Minister Nouri Maliki or the Iraqi Government's agreement with the Americans, that forced them out of the cities."

Al Qaeda in Iraq is clearly much weaker than it was at the height of its power in 2006 when it overplayed its hand by declaring its own Islamic State of Iraq and sought to become the ruling power in all Sunni Arab areas.

"Al Qaeda has in fact been defeated," Zebari said.

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