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Al-Qaeda In Iraq 'Becoming Less Foreign'

U.S. General Ray Odierno
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Al-Qaeda in Iraq is becoming more Iraqi and less dominated by foreigners as the insurgent group increasingly joins forces with Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath party, the commander of U.S. forces said today.

Investigations into massive suicide bombings in Baghdad on October 25, in which more than 150 people died, indicated that explosives or fighters were coming across from Syria, U.S. General Ray Odierno also said.

The U.S. commander's comments reinforced accusations by the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that Al-Qaeda and former Baathists were working together to undermine improved security and elections expected to be held in January.

Maliki's government has also accused neighbouring Syria of giving a safe haven to Ba'athists plotting attacks in Iraq.

"Al-Qaeda in Iraq has transformed significantly in the last two years. What once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens," Odierno told reporters at the U.S. military's main base in Baghdad.

"There's still a small foreign element to Al-Qaeda, there are some who used to be Sunni rejectionists or ex-Baathists who are involved in this because of course they don't want the government to succeed."

Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the past 18 months and November so far has experienced one of the lowest civilian casualty levels since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

But attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents like Al-Qaeda remain common.

The twin suicide bombings in Baghdad on October 25 devastated the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad governorate headquarters, while two similar suicide bombings on August 19 killed almost 100 people at the Foreign and Finance ministries.

"We believe that there will be attempts to conduct more attacks between now and the elections because they want to destabilise those," Odierno said.

The election is expected to occur between January 18-23 but the date has been cast into doubt after Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi vetoed a law needed for the ballot to take place.

Odierno said multiple investigations had been launched into the October 25 bombings, involving U.S. and Iraqi investigators.

"My experience is there probably was some movement of fighters or explosives coming from Syria," he said when asked if the investigations had indicated any links to Syria.