BAGHDAD – U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that weapons supplied by Iran are being used in attacks against American forces in Iraq, part of an escalating campaign of violence ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal by the year’s end.
“We’re seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they’ve really hurt us,” said Panetta, who arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit after a two-day stop in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said 15 U.S. troops were killed in June, the most in any month in two years. More than half of the deaths were caused by rockets known as “improvised rocket-assisted mortars” that U.S. officials say are provided to Shiite militant groups by Iran.
Two Coeur d’Alene men, Army Spc. Nathan R. Beyers and Army Spc. Nicholas W. Newby, died Thursday of injuries suffered when insurgents in Baghdad attacked their convoy with an explosive. A third Coeur d’Alene soldier, Staff Sgt. Jason Rzepa, suffered serious injuries in the attack.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other U.S. officials also have said publicly in recent days that Iran is behind the surge in violence against the 46,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq. U.S. officials are stepping up the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to resolve whether he will ask for some American troops to remain beyond the deadline.
By playing up the Iranian threat, U.S. officials may be hoping to spur such a request from Iraq.
Panetta said he will encourage Maliki when they meet to decide whether Iraq would request that a contingent of U.S. troops remain in Iraq beyond the deadline. U.S. officials have signaled for months that they would look favorably on such a request, noting that Iraq’s military remains unprepared to handle the full range of threats the country faces without continuing American training and assistance.
The idea of keeping any U.S. forces remains deeply controversial in Iraq, where Maliki faces pressure from hard-line members of his Shiite-dominated governing coalition not to extend the American presence.
Anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement in Maliki’s government complicates the ability of Iraqi forces to go after all the hard-line Shiite groups. That’s because the movement gives al-Sadr’s Promised Day Brigade militia, which opposes the American presence, political backing.
Keeping U.S. forces also would be unpopular with some supporters of President Barack Obama, who had pledged to follow the schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces.
U.S. officials have refused to say publicly whether they favor keeping troops in Iraq, even though privately some administration officials said that the White House had decided it could keep a force of as many as 10,000. But that could be controversial, especially with some Democrats in Congress who have called for complete pullout, other than a few hundred military personnel who would remain in Iraq to handle arms sales and other routine matters.
Asked Sunday whether he supported keeping American forces in Iraq, Panetta replied: “I think it’s really dependent on the Iraqis. If they make the request, I do believe we ought to seriously consider it.”
Panetta’s four-day swing through Afghanistan and Iraq is his first overseas trip since taking over the Pentagon this month.
“I would like Iraq to exert more of an effort to go after these extremists that are using these weapons,” Panetta said Sunday at a base in Afghanistan.