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U.S. says al Qaeda will "lash out" in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military expects al Qaeda in Iraq to strike back with “spectacular attacks” after major U.S.-led offensives that have disrupted its activities, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.

U.S. military spokesman Brigadier-General Kevin J. Bergner listens to a question from the media at the heavily fortified Green Zone area in Baghdad July 2, 2007. The U.S. military expects al Qaeda in Iraq to strike back with "spectacular attacks" after a major offensive in and around Baghdad disrupted the network's activities, a military spokesman said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Chris Hondros/Pool

Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner said 26 leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq had been killed or captured in operations in May and June across the country.

“Over the past two months our collective efforts against the al Qaeda leadership have begun to disrupt their networks and safe havens,” Bergner told a news conference.

“We fully expect al Qaeda in Iraq operatives to lash out and stage spectacular attacks to reassert themselves.”

Underscoring the threat, police searching a truck that had entered from neighbouring Syria found 200 suicide belts and packs of explosives, the Interior Ministry said.

It was unclear who was behind the shipment, but U.S. commanders say al Qaeda is increasingly utilising suicide vests because many vulnerable targets such as outdoor markets have been walled off to stop suicide car bombs getting in.

U.S. officials say Syria does not do enough to halt the flow of fighters and weapons into Iraq, a charge Damascus denies.

Bergner’s comments followed a weekend of bloodshed in Iraq in which nearly 250 people were killed, including 150 in a truck bombing in the northern town of Tuz Khurmato. Iraqi officials have blamed the Sunni Islamist militant group for that attack.

Some U.S. military officials have said they expect militants to strike hard in the next two months before a much-anticipated report on Iraq goes to the U.S. Congress in mid-September.

That report is being prepared by U.S. military commander General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and will assess Iraq’s security and political progress.

It is being seen as a watershed given the mounting pressure on U.S. President George W. Bush from Democrats and increasingly from senior members in his own Republican Party for a shift in his war strategy.

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A new USA Today/Gallup poll showed more than seven in 10 Americans favour withdrawing nearly all U.S troops by April.

U.S. officials blame al Qaeda for most of the major car bombings in Iraq, saying the group is trying to spark all-out civil war between majority Shi’tes and minority Sunni Arabs.

HOUSE BLOWN UP WITH PEOPLE INSIDE

In fresh violence on Wednesday , gunmen killed at least 11 people when they locked them inside a house west of Baghdad then blew it up, the U.S. military said.

Major Jeff Pool, a spokesman for U.S. Marines based in western Anbar province, said the attack in the town of Garma may have been a “vendetta” against the owner who is involved with the provincial security forces.

“According to eyewitnesses, two vehicles drove to a house in the village, locked the occupants inside and demolished the house with explosives,” Pool said.

Iraqi police also said they found 30 bodies on the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday. That followed the discovery of 26 bodies on Tuesday, indicating sectarian death squads are increasingly roaming the capital.

Bergner was pressed to explain the link between al Qaeda in Iraq and the global network led by Osama bin Laden, given the U.S. military’s increasing focus on al Qaeda in Iraq as the biggest threat to the country.

“Al Qaeda senior leadership does provide direction to al Qaeda in Iraq,” Bergner said.

“Their numbers are relatively small (in Iraq), but their effect is very, very devastating to the Iraqi people because they are employed frequently as these suicide bombers.”

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a German woman who was kidnapped by militants in Iraq in February had been freed but her son remained in captivity.

Militants had threatened to kill Hannelore Krause and her son, seized from their home in western Baghdad on February 6, unless Germany withdrew its troops from Afghanistan.

Krause is married to an Iraqi physician and moved to Iraq 40 years ago. Her son, Sinan, is reported to be in his mid-20s and has dual German-Iraqi citizenship.

Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin

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