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Petraeus sees shift in Al Qaeda's Iraq tactics

U.S. Central Command Commander General David Petraeus speaks at the 6th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Regional Security Summit in Bahraini capital of Manama, December 13, 2009. REUTERS/Fouzia Hamza

MANAMA (Reuters) - Fewer foreign volunteers are making it into Iraq to fight with Al Qaeda against the U.S.-backed government but the group has switched to fewer but more deadly attacks, U.S. General David Petraeus said on Sunday.

“There is no question that Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly reduced in its capability and capacity,” Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on the sidelines of a security conference in Bahrain.

“The flow of foreign fighters through Syria has been reduced dramatically from 110 a month at the height of the flow to under 10 per month now,” he said.

“What they have decided to do, we believe, is literally to conduct a lower level of attacks day-to-day and periodically coordinate high profile attacks so that they get the big press bounce out of that.”

The United States still has thousands of troops in Iraq backing the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which has often accused neighboring Syria of not taking action to stop militants operating in Iraq.

Violence has dipped sharply in Iraq over the past 18 months but the recent bombings have stoked doubts about the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace before the elections.

Militants linked to al Qaeda claimed bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday that police said killed 112 people.

Petraeus said Washington was on track with plans to reduce its forces in Iraq to 50,000 by August 31, 2010 from around 115,000 now. The United States hopes to end combat operations in Iraq next August, before a full pullout by the end of 2011.

Reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Andrew Hammond