Most Qaeda leaders in Iraq killed - US
Washington - The top US commander in Iraq said on Friday that most of the senior leaders of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq - 34 out of 42 - have been captured or killed over the past three months.
General Ray Odierno told reporters that the focus now is on keeping mid- or low-level fighters from taking their place.
"We will continue with our Iraqi security partners to go after them," Odierno said. "But there are still some very dangerous people out there."
After the 2003 invasion, Iraq became the central battleground for al-Qaeda, with the network growing in strength and helping undermine the Iraqi government supported by the US.
More recently, US officials say al-Qaeda's presence and influence in Iraq has diminished as the militant group turns its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as countries like Somalia with weak central government control.
At the Pentagon, Odierno told reporters that the US had been "whittling away" at the remaining al-Qaeda force inside Iraq for a long time. Last winter, he said, the US was able to make significant inroads into the group's headquarters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
"We were able to get inside this network," he said.
On US troop levels, Odierno said he is confident that he can meet the deadline set by President Barack Obama to go down to 50 000 forces by the end of August.
There are now 88 000 US troops there, down from its peak of some 175 000, the general said.
Odierno said he does not believe that security in Iraq will deteriorate during the period of US withdrawal. "What's different today than a year ago is the Iraqis are in the lead. We are not," he said.
At the same time, the four-star general said the next three months would be critical to the formation of a new Iraqi government, following elections earlier this year.
"That, we all believe, will set the tone for the next four years on what direction Iraq goes," he said.
Odierno met with Obama on Wednesday at the White House.