WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The group al Qaeda in Iraq appears to be making a “last gasp” attempt to foment sectarian violence in Baghdad but does not seem to be succeeding, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday.
Gates made his comments a day after seven car bombs exploded across Baghdad, killing at least 37 people and wounding scores of others in what U.S. and Iraqi officials described as a coordinated strike by al Qaeda militants.
“What we’re seeing is al Qaeda trying sort of as a last gasp to try and reverse the progress that’s been made, through these attacks,” Gates said in an interview with the PBS television network program “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
Monday’s bombings were the latest in a string of high-profile attacks carried out in an apparent attempt to stir further hostilities between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.
U.S. military officials contend that overall violence remains at its lowest levels since the war began in 2003 even with the latest attacks, as Washington prepares to begin reducing forces in large numbers next year. There are currently 139,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Asked whether al Qaeda was succeeding in reversing security gains, Gates said, “I don’t think so, no. And, in fact, I think it’s been quite impressive how resilient people have been in Baghdad, in Iraq in general.”
His description of the Sunni militant group’s “last gasp” was reminiscent of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2005 remark that Iraq’s insurgency was in its “last throes.”
A huge upswing in sectarian violence followed Cheney’s comment, and the United States later sent 30,000 extra troops to Iraq to try to quell the unrest.
U.S. military officials say al Qaeda in Iraq has been greatly weakened since Sunni tribesmen switched sides to join the United States two years ago, driving the militants from their former stronghold in Anbar province.
Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Will Dunham