HUNDREDS of insurgents have been captured or killed as a result of information gleaned from the hunting down of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, it was claimed yesterday.
Even as the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq reached 2,500, the military was trumpeting the success of its pursuit of al-Qaeda, revealing 452 raids carried out since Zarqawi's killing on 7 June had resulted in the deaths of 104 insurgents, the capture of 759 "anti-Iraqi elements" and the discovery of 28 arms caches.
US and Iraqi officials said large numbers of documents had been seized during the hunt for Zarqawi, giving key information about the militant group's net-work and the whereabouts of its leaders.
Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, called it "the beginning of the end of al-Qaeda in Iraq". He said: "Now we have the upper hand. We feel that we know their locations, the names of their leaders, their whereabouts, their movements, through the documents we found during the last few days."
The documents seized included one from a computer found in an al-Qaeda hideout used by Zarqawi, apparently setting out al-Qaeda's future tactics and acknowledging it was losing not only the military battle but also the propaganda war. One of its suggestions for redressing the balance was to encourage hostility between the US and Iran. The document also said Zarqawi planned to try to destroy the relationship between the US and its Shiite allies in Iraq.
Mr Rubaie said:
"The government is on the attack now ... to destroy al-Qaeda and to finish this terrorist organisation in Iraq."
Major General William Caldwell, a spokesman for the US military in Iraq, said they believed they had established the true identity of Zarqawi's replacement, who was named by al-Qaeda as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.
"We think that Abu Ayyub al-Masri is in fact, probably, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. They are probably one and the same," Gen Caldwell said. Al-Masri, an Egyptian, trained in Afghanistan and formed al-Qaeda's first cell in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Mr Rubaie said he believed the security situation in his country would improve enough to allow a large number of US-led forces to leave by the end of this year and a majority to depart by the end of next year. "And maybe the last soldier will leave Iraq by mid-2008," he said. But that suggestion was quickly dismissed by Sherwan al-Waili, the minister of national security, who said the issue of foreign troop withdrawal was up to the Iraqi parliament.
The US military said it had received no specific timeline from General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, but a spokesman stressed the military was in Iraq as "guests here of the government of Iraq and at which time they tell us that they're ready to have us return home, we will in fact depart".
The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that the death toll of US troops in Iraq had reached 2,500 since the war began in March 2003, underscoring warnings that the killing of al-Qaeda's leader in the country would not end the relentless violence. It means that, on an average day, two US troops are killed.
It also said 18,490 US troops had been wounded in the war.
"It's important to remember that there is a mission, and there is a greater good which sometimes necessitates tremendous sacrifice," said Brigadier General Carter Ham, the deputy director of regional operations for the military's joint staff who formerly commanded US forces in northern Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have also been killed since the US-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, sparking an insurgency by his once-dominant Sunni Arab minority that is showing little sign of easing.
Yesterday, more than 20 Iraqis lost their lives in separate attacks. In the bloodiest of the incidents, gunmen stopped a minibus taking ten labourers to work in the town of Baquba, forced them to get off and killed them, according to Iraqi police.
Further west, attackers opened fire on a Sunni Arab mosque in a small town near Tikrit, Saddam's home city, killing four worshippers and wounding up to 20 others.
In the northern town of Tal Afar, which George Bush, the US president, has held up as an example of progress in Iraq, three roadside bombs killed five Iraqi soldiers.
Terrorists in crisis, says Zarqawi document
AL-QAEDA is being weakened by United States military attacks and propaganda, according to a document allegedly found on a computer belonging to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the organisation's late leader.
The document expressed concern at the failure to attract recruits and proposed a change of tactics to create a new impetus.
One suggestion was that conflict should be fostered between the US and another country, such as Shiite Iran, and by stirring up US-Shiite tension in Iraq. Another was that al-Qaeda should infiltrate Iraq's armed forces, recruit new members and manufacture more weapons.
The writer states that a review of tactics is especially important because forces of the Iraqi National Guard "have succeeded in forming an enormous shield protecting the American forces and have reduced substantially the losses that were solely suffered by the American forces".
The main suggestion is that the US should be diverted by drawing it into another conflict.
"In general and despite the current bleak situation, we think that the best suggestions in order to get out of this crisis is to entangle the American forces into another war against another country," it said.
"Hence, it is necessary first to exaggerate the Iranian danger and to convince America and the west in general, of the real danger coming from Iran."