ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — A string of setbacks for Al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq has left the insurgent group "devastated" and struggling to cope with a double whammy of a leadership vacuum and a money squeeze, the top U.S. military officer said Sunday.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he found it particularly encouraging that gains against Al Qaeda have been made in operations carried out jointly by U.S. and Iraqi military forces. That makes it more likely, Mullen said, that after U.S. troops leave in 2011 the Iraqi government will be able to handle what remains of Al Qaeda's capability to launch terror strikes.
Mullen's remarks echoed an assessment made Friday by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq. Odierno told reporters that over the last three months, "we've either picked up or killed 34 out of the top 42 Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders." He said the group is trying to reorganize but has "lost connection" with the top-rung Al Qaeda leaders who are hiding in western Pakistan.
In a brief interview at Andrews Air Force Base upon his return from visiting the National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Va., Mullen said he has been encouraged at progress against Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is known for grisly suicide attacks that have killed thousands.
"I've watched this over an extended period of time where we have just devastated them by removing their leadership" and making it harder for the organization to get financing, Mullen said. "We've watched them struggle in that regard."
Mullen said he could not estimate how much longer Al Qaeda will remain a factor inside Iraq. But he expressed confidence that whatever its lifespan, the Iraqi government is showing encouraging signs of being able to contain the group well after the U.S. departs.
"Every single operation" against Al Qaeda in recent months "has been Iraqi-U.S. combined, and in fact Iraqi-led for all intents and purposes," he said.
The top two Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces in April in an operation that both countries described as a major blow to the group. But attacks blamed on Al Qaeda in Iraq in May — including a series of bombings and shootings that killed 119 people in a single day — raised questions about the impact of the two leaders' slaying.
Odierno said Friday that in the months leading up to the killing of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, U.S. and Iraqi forces had managed to "get inside" the terrorist organization and learned a great deal by capturing key leaders involved in the group's financing, planning and recruiting.
The organization has proven resilient and able to change tactics in the past, most notably after its founder, Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a June 2006 U.S. airstrike.
Mullen said he believes there is a connection between recent successes against Al Qaeda in Iraq and gains against Al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan.
Al Qaeda's No. 3 official, Mustafa al-Yazid, was killed in May along with members of his family in perhaps one of the most severe blows to the terror movement since the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda began in 2001. He apparently was attacked in the tribal regions of western Pakistan where other senior Al Qaeda figures, including Usama bin Laden, are believed to be in hiding.