By CNN Sr. National Security Producer Charley Keyes
A senior American military officer in Iraq describes al Qaeda there as having deteriorated into a criminal gang, desperate for money and men.
"Instead of foreign aid coming in in large amounts, they're resorting to what I would call extortion, black marketing, robbery of jewelry stores, things like that," Maj. Gen. David Perkins said Thursday. "And it's devolving more into almost gang Mafia-type activities, especially in Mosul and some of these other areas with people slicing off areas of responsibility that they can use for extortion or something like that to get money."
Perkins, who commands 5,000 American troops in north Iraq and is responsible for the training of Iraqi forces there, said far fewer outside fighters were entering Iraq.
"So it is a network that is highly degraded," Perkins said in a video link up between Tikrit and the Pentagon. "It is not ineffective, but it is highly degraded. And where we see that manifest itself is the dramatic decrease in numbers of attacks, especially your typical al Qaeda signature attacks, spectacular attacks, ones with a large amount of suicide folks involved."
The general said U.S. forces were on "a sprint to the finish line" with American troop levels now in the "mid-40-thousand" and moving toward a full withdrawal by the end of the year. He and many of his fellow soldiers are on their fourth deployment to Iraq.
Perkins said discussions are ongoing with the Iraqi government about leaving some U.S. troops behind, expected to be primarily trainers.
And he said that the U.S. still needs to assist Iraqi forces with intelligence gathering and logistics.
"We paid additional attention to developing a logistics system, a supply system and also ability for them to share intelligence not only within their army but between their police and border organizations," Perkins said.
A fresh reminder of the continuing dangers - Perkins said one of his men had been killed earlier in the day Thursday from indirect fire.
"The problems are not solved here in Iraq," Perkins said. "They're not to be glossed over. But there have been significant improvements. And in each day we hand more and more of the responsibility off to the Iraqis, which in the vast majority of cases they are grabbing hold of and running with it."