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Iraq official says terrorist group crippled
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BAGHDAD -- Iraq's interior ministry spokesman said Saturday that 75 percent of al-Qaida in Iraq's terrorist network had been destroyed this year, but the top American commander in the country said the terror group remained his chief concern.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said the disruption of the terrorist network was due to improvements in the Iraqi security forces, which he said had made strides in weeding out commanders and officers with ties to militias or who were involved in criminal activities.

He also credited the rise of anti-al-Qaida in Iraq groups, mostly made up of Sunni fighters the Shiite-dominated government has cautiously begun to embrace. Additionally, an increase in American troops since June has been credited with pushing many militants out of Baghdad.

Khalaf's assertion that three-fourths of al-Qaida in Iraq had been destroyed could not be independently verified and he did not elaborate on how the percentage was determined.

But violence in Iraq has dropped significantly since June — the U.S. military says it is down 60 percent nationwide — demonstrating success in fighting the terrorist network.

Separately, Iraq's chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Saturday that two senior insurgents linked to al-Qaida were arrested the day before near Baghdad.

Ahmed Turky Abbas, the "defense minister" of the Islamic State of Iraq — an al-Qaida front group — was arrested in a village near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, al-Moussawi said. Not far from Mahmoudiya in Latifiyah, the Iraqi army also arrested Hussein Ali Turky, considered a local religious leader for al-Qaida in Iraq.

Khalaf said such pressure on extremists has helped contain their activities.

"Their activity is now limited to certain places north of Baghdad," he said at a news conference. "We're working on pursuing those groups, that is the coming fight."

Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, told a small group of Western reporters on Saturday that despite the success against al-Qaida in Iraq, destroying the group is still a top concern for the U.S. military.

"We still regard al-Qaida as the biggest threat," Petraeus said. "We regard them as the most significant challenge facing Iraq."

After nearly five years of war, American military commanders have learned to couch even optimistic reports in cautious terms. They have repeatedly said that the fight against extremists in Iraq is far from over, noting that they still have the capacity to carry out large attacks.

But the impact of U.S. and Iraqi military success against the group has been reflected in decreased civilian deaths.

According to an Associated Press count, civilian deaths in Iraq have steadily dropped in the second half of 2007 after seeing a high of 2,155 killed in May. Through Friday, deaths in December stood at 691, the lowest for the year and much lower than the 2,309 killed in December 2006.

AP figures on civilian deaths are compiled from hospital, police and military officials, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers. Insurgent deaths are not included. Other counts differ and some have given higher civilian death tolls.

Meanwhile, the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Saturday called for reconciliation between his followers and Iraqi security forces in the holy city of Karbala, according to al-Sadr aide Sheik Mohannad al-Gharrawi.

In August, followers of al-Sadr and fighters loyal to the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim clashed in Karbala during a religious festival, killing 52 people. Since then, al-Sadr loyalists have been targeted in a crackdown by Iraqi security forces.

"This initiative comes as a response to the events that took place in Karbala, when more than 50 pilgrims died," al-Gharrawi said.

After that fighting, al-Sadr announced he was freezing the activities of his Mahdi Army militia for six months — a move that both Iraqi and American officials have said has had a big impact on the reduction in violence.

Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn, Sinan Salaheddin, Hamid Ahmed and Diaa Hadid in Baghdad and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report

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