Iran trying to sway debate on Iraq: U.S. general
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S. general said on Saturday Iran had increased supplies of weapons to Shi'ite militias in Iraq to attack U.S. troops and influence debate in Washington before the presentation of a crucial report on Iraq next month.
Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said the U.S. military was changing tactics and stepping up operations against militant car bomb and roadside bomb cells known to have links with Iran.
"Because they have stepped-up support from Iran we are focusing on them a bit more. In the last three months ... we are seeing brand-new rocket launchers, mortars and mortar launchers," he told Reuters in an interview.
Iran denies meddling in Iraq and says the U.S. invasion in 2003 is the cause of sectarian strife. Iranian and U.S. officials met last week to discuss the formation of a new security committee aimed at improving cooperation on Iraq.
"I think they want us to leave Iraq. They understand what is going on politically back in the United States. In the long term they want to ... divert attention from the nuclear issue," Odierno said after touring a U.S. combat outpost in a former Iraqi army club in Baghdad's Karrada peninsula.
U.S. President George W. Bush has sent nearly 30,000 extra troop to Iraq since February to try to stem sectarian violence, despite opposition from Democrats in Congress and some members of his own party, who want a timetable for a troop withdrawal.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to present a report to Congress in September on the success of the troop buildup and Iraqi political progress towards reconciliation.
"We are making progress, the surge has reduced sectarian violence," Odierno said. But the success on the battlefield needed to be matched by Iraq's political leaders, he added.
He said he expected al Qaeda in Iraq to try to launch a "spectacular" attack and for Shi'ite militias to step up the pressure on U.S. forces ahead of the report.
"The biggest threat still is AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) trying to do a mass attack on civilians. They want to rain terror down on neighborhoods so people lose confidence in the government," said Odierno, the number two commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Asked how he planned to counter the threat, he said: "We are continuing to be offensive in key areas. Every night, every day we conduct numerous operations based on intelligence."
U.S. forces have carried out raids in recent weeks in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia. This week, the military said 30 gunmen were killed in an air strike during an operation against a cell with known links to Iran. Local hospitals said 13 people were killed, including a woman.
Odierno has said that 73 percent of attacks on U.S. forces in July were carried out by Shi'ite militias and that the number of incidents involving explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), a particularly deadly armour-piercing bomb said to be supplied by Iran, reached a peak in July.
U.S. commanders say much of the aid from neighboring Shi'ite Islamist Iran goes to rogue units of the Mehdi Army, headed by anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Odierno said Sadr, who has repeatedly called for U.S. troops to quit Iraq, had gone to Iran about a month ago "to try figure some things out".
"He is having some trouble with the organization. It is in disarray. I think he has gone to Iran to ... do some reorganization," he said.