BAGHDAD – The leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq and several of his top lieutenants have recently left Iraq for Afghanistan, according to its leaders and Iraqi intelligence officials, a possible further sign of what Iraqi and U.S. officials call growing disarray and weakness in the organization.
U.S. officials say there are indications that al-Qaida is diverting new recruits from going to Iraq, where its fighters have suffered dramatic setbacks, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they appear to be making gains.
“We do believe al-Qaida is doing some measure of re-assessment regarding the continued viability of its fight in Iraq and whether Iraq should remain the focus of its efforts,” Brig. Gen. Brian Keller, the senior intelligence officer for Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said in an e-mail. But Keller said the reliability of the indications that recruits have been diverted has “not yet been determined” and that U.S. officials had no evidence that top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders had gone to Afghanistan.
A largely homegrown insurgent group that American officials believe is led by foreigners, al-Qaida in Iraq has long been one of the most ruthless and dangerous organizations in the country. But even some of its leaders acknowledge that it has been seriously weakened over the past year.
The number of foreign fighters entering Iraq has dropped to 20 a month, down from about 110 a month last summer and as many as 50 a month earlier this year, according to a senior U.S. intelligence analyst who declined to be identified further because of the nature of his work.
Some al-Qaida in Iraq members blamed the group’s troubles on failed leadership since 2006 by its head, an Egyptian who has used the pseudonyms Abu Hamza al-Muhajer and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Some of the fighters said they have become so frustrated by al-Masri that they recently split off to form their own Sunni insurgent group.