WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda in Iraq has shown with a string of more deadly bombings in northern areas that it can reconstitute itself and its capabilities, the commander of U.S. forces in the region said on Tuesday.
Major General Robert Caslen, speaking via satellite to reporters at the Pentagon, said efforts were underway to keep a lid on sectarian tensions and it was unclear whether Iraqi security forces in the area would be capable of reining in the networks behind the attacks if the violence continues.
Bombings and shootings are reported almost daily in and around Mosul, the capital of the northern province of Nineveh, where insurgents have exploited disputes between Arabs and Kurds to remain strong even as their influence has waned elsewhere in Iraq.
Caslen said he saw those tensions as one of the "most dangerous" threats to Iraq, warning the situation could "certainly resolve in an ethnic, lethal force engagement between Kurds and Arabs."
Since June 30, when U.S. troops in Iraq withdrew from urban centers, the average number of attacks per week in Mosul has dropped to 29 from 42 before the pullback, Caslen said.
"What has increased, however, is the capability (of al Qaeda and its allies) to conduct the high-profile attacks," he said. "So you see an increase in the numbers of casualties post-30 June."
He did not provide casualty figures.
Bombs killed 42 people across Iraq on Monday, ripping through mostly Shi'ite areas and raising fears of a resurgence in sectarian violence.
Last week, a string of bombings targeting Shi'ites killed 44 people. Sunni Islamist militants such as al Qaeda, who consider Shi'ites heretics, are often blamed.
Caslen said al Qaeda's leadership remained heavily concentrated in northern Iraq, primarily in Mosul. He said U.S. operations earlier this year targeting al Qaeda in and around Mosul had weakened the group.
But the recent attacks, he said, showed "they still have the capability and they remain, I would say, a resilient force that has a capability to regenerate their combat power if necessary."
"They recognize how important it is to have these high-profile attacks in order to ... entice the sectarian violence," Caslen said. "We have not found the sectarian reactions which, I think, is good."