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Al-Qaeda in retreat - CIA chief

Michael Hayden, file picture from 5 February, 2008
The CIA chief gave an upbeat analysis of the fight against al-Qaeda

The head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has said al-Qaeda is essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and on the defensive elsewhere.

Michael Hayden's remarks, which correspondents describe as strikingly upbeat, come less than a year after the CIA warned of a resurgent al-Qaeda.

He told the Washington Post that US counter-terrorism successes extended to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is thought to be hiding out in the area.

"On balance, we are doing pretty well," said the CIA director. "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally."

No complacency

Mr Hayden said capturing or killing Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remained a top priority.

Osama Bin Laden - still by as-Sahab Media
Mr Hayden said Bin Laden was losing his appeal in the Arab world

"The ability to kill and capture key members of al-Qaeda continues, and keeps them off balance - even in their best safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," he said.

However, the CIA chief warned against complacency, which he said could halt or reverse any progress against al-Qaeda.

Just two years ago, the CIA warned that the militant Islamic group was using the US-led war in Iraq as a successful propaganda and marketing tool.

But now, Mr Hayden said, al-Qaeda was losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world.

Iranian interference

He said there was a growing public resentment toward jihadism, and described the insurgency in Iraq as "more and more a war of al-Qaeda against Iraqis".

It is the policy of the Iranian government... to facilitate the killing of American and other coalition forces in Iraq
Michael Hayden
CIA director

"Despite this 'cause celebre' phenomenon, fundamentally no one really liked al-Qaeda's vision of the future," said Mr Hayden.

He praised the increasing competence of the Iraqi military in combating extremist groups.

But he warned that progress in Iraq was being undermined by growing Iranian interference.

The US accuses Tehran of funding, arming and training insurgents.

He said: "It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved at the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of American and other coalition forces in Iraq. Period."

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