CAMP SPEICHER, Iraq – The threat from Al-Qaeda in several former strongholds in Baghdad has been significantly reduced, but criminals who have established "almost mafia-like presence" in some areas pose a new threat, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday.
Gen. David Petraeus stressed, however, the terror organization remained "a very dangerous and very lethal enemy" — a comment underscored by the abduction Sunday in Baghdad of 10 Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders who joined forces against Al-Qaeda.
"Its presence has been significantly reduced and its activity and freedom of action have been degraded," Petraeus told a small group of reporters at a U.S. base near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad.
He singled out success in what had been some of the most volatile Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Ghazaliyah, Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora.
"Having said that ... Al-Qaeda remains a very dangerous and very lethal enemy of Iraq," he said. "We must maintain contact with them and not allow them to establish sanctuaries or re-establish sanctuaries in places where they were before."
The gunmen ambushed the two cars carrying the 10 sheiks — seven Sunnis and three Shiites — in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Shaab at about 3:30 p.m., police officials said.
The sheiks were returning to Diyala province after attending a conference with the Shiite-dominated government's adviser for tribal affairs to discuss coordinating efforts against al-Qaida in Iraq, police and a relative said.
Petraeus said the reduced threat from al-Qaida had given way to nonsectarian crimes — kidnapping, corruption in the oil industry and extortion.
"As the terrible extremist threat of al-Qaida has been reduced somewhat, there is in some Iraqi neighborhoods actually a focus on crime and on extortion that has been ongoing and kidnapping cells and what is almost a mafia-like presence in certain areas," he said.
Petraeus made his comments after a transition ceremony as the 1st Armored Division, which is based in Wiesbaden, Germany, assumed command of northern Iraq from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.
The new commander for the region, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, said the number of attacks so far in October had dropped by 300 from the previous month, although he did not provide more specific numbers.
A car bomb Sunday ripped through a Kirkuk bus terminal that serves travelers to Iraq's Kurdish region, killing eight people and wounding 26, according to police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir.
The terminal is located in a mainly Kurdish area of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which Iraq's Kurds want to annex to their self-rule region in the north of the country.
The city's Arab and Turkomen residents dispute the Kurdish claim.
Gunmen meanwhile, sprayed a car carrying five bodyguards of the head of local Sunni Endowments department in the turbulent city of Basra, killing one of them and injuring the rest, police said.
Also in Basra, a mainly Shiite city 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, a local elections official was gunned down late Saturday in front of his house.
The police officials who reported both attacks spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. They did not give a motive for the attacks.
But while the attack on the bodyguards may have had a sectarian motive — the Sunni Endowment is a state agency that looks after the sect's mosques and seminaries — the second one could have been linked to the widening fight among rival Shiite groups vying for control of the city in the wake of the redeployment outside Basra of British troops.
News of the attacks in Basra came as a public tussle between Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the country's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, grew more intense.
Al-Hashemi's office said in a statement Sunday that he asked President Jalal Talabani to push parliament to pardon security detainees who aren't what he called "dangerous elements" that would rejoin the insurgency.
Al-Hashemi has campaigned for the release of thousands of detainees held in Iraqi and U.S.-run detention facilities without charge. He appeared to be trying to bypass al-Maliki in the appeal.
Nearly 90 percent of the estimated 25,000 Iraqis held by the U.S. military are believed to be members of the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, a fact that Sunni politicians say is evidence of sectarian policies of the Shiite-dominated government.
Petraeus also offered some personal reflection on the plight of Sultan Hashim al-Tai, who faces the death penalty after his conviction for his role in a Saddam Hussein-era military campaign that killed tens of thousands of Kurds.
Al-Tai and the two other defendants — Saddam's cousin "Chemical Ali" al-Majid and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy operations director for the Iraqi military — were convicted in June of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their part in the 1986-88 crackdown. They were sentenced to death by hanging.
But the executions have been delayed as Iraqi politicians wrangle over the refusal of Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, to sign the order, as required by the constitution. Some legal experts have argued the requirement did not apply to former regime officials.
Al-Tai, a Sunni Arab from the northern city of Mosul, negotiated the cease-fire than ended the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He also surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 after weeks of negotiations. His defense lawyers claimed the Americans had promised al-Tai "protection and good treatment" before he turned himself in.
Petraeus, who was then commander of the 101st Airborne division that oversaw the surrender, denied he had promised al-Tai immunity.
"We put the word out to his family through interlocutors that you know I would receive his surrender in an honorable manner and convey him to the central authorities and that's basically what we did. And I did treat him honorably."
Petraeus said they brought al-Tai's family to him for a "final farewell." The commander also recalled that he personally flew al-Tai in his helicopter to Mosul and spent about an hour with him as they waited for a C-130 transport plane to fly him to Baghdad.
"But the bottom line is that if the appropriate Iraqi process is followed then we will respect that process," he said, adding that the three men remained in U.S. custody.