Confident Maliki asserts al Qaeda weakened in Iraq

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OTTAWA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Al Qaeda militants in Iraq are weakened and no longer have the strongholds they need to plan and execute attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asserted in an interview with Canadian television.

Maliki, heavily criticized in the United States for not doing enough to restore order to Iraq and for failing to make headway toward political stability, said there had been ''huge progress'' in improving security.

''What drives me to believe that there will be further progress is that al Qaeda does not command any more strongholds in which it can live, organize, plan and execute terrorist attacks,'' he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp yesterday.

''It has lost its basis and the security conditions that helped execute these operations,'' added Maliki, speaking through an interpreter.

The United States says al Qaeda is one of the militant groups in Iraq plotting attacks against its troops. The US military said American forces targeting an al Qaeda network in northwest Iraq killed eight suspected insurgents on Tuesday.

Maliki said the ''chase that followed al Qaeda from place to place'' was party of a plan to prevent the group from rebuilding its cells. ''This gives us indications and confidence that our continuous chase will dissolve what remains of al Qaeda.'' The top US military commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, this week told Congress that enough progress has been made in Iraq for the number of US troops there be reduced by about 30,000 by next July. Baghdad welcomed that assessment.

''The withdrawal will not be sudden or greater than the security needs of Iraq. It will be appropriate and proportional to the need of having these troops present,'' said Maliki.

Maliki has said Iraqi forces need more time to take over full security responsibility from American troops and other Iraqi officials have warned that a premature US pullout would trigger a civil war.

Reuters TB VP0652

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