By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq have increased in recent months, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday, casting doubt on the view Iran might have reduced its support for violence in the war.
David Satterfield, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, said he believed Iran’s strategy remained to force the United States to withdraw from Iraq at as high a price as possible.
The United States has 158,000 troops in Iraq seeking to quell an insurgency and sectarian violence that erupted after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Satterfield said President George W. Bush hoped to leave his successor a more stable Iraq and the time to weigh options on how to deal with the country, which holds the world’s third largest oil reserves.
Attacks across Iraq have fallen by 60 percent since June 2007, when Bush’s "surge" of of 30,000 additional U.S. troops became fully deployed.
Analysts attribute the decline to the deployment of more U.S. and Iraqi forces, a decision by some Sunni tribal leaders to help the United States fight foreign-born Islamic extremists, and a cease-fire declared by anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Satterfield said he believed Iran still wants U.S. forces out of Iraq to increase its own local and regional influence.
"Iran remains, we believe, determined to pursue its goal of departure of U.S. forces under as difficult circumstances as possible, both as a means of securing its ambitions in Iraq per se as well as projecting through and beyond Iraq its broader regional and ... international ambitions," he said.
"Iran remains lethally engaged in terms of providing training and equipment to the most radical and the most violent forces in Iraq. Attacks by those forces continue," he added.
Satterfield said attacks on U.S. forces with armor-piercing munitions that U.S. officials believe come from Iran, have risen in recent months, as have mortar attacks on Basra Air Station in southern Iraq near Iran. He called both "bellwethers of Iranian-backed violence."
REDUCED ROADSIDE BOMBINGS
"If there was any demonstration that there was a certain degree of toning down of that violence, the increased attacks on Basra Air Station, the increased EFP attacks, would certainly vitiate that argument," he added, referring to the armor-piercing arms called explosively formed penetrators.
Some analysts have speculated that a reduction in roadside bomb attacks and other violence in Iraq last year may have reflected reduced Iranian support. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior U.S. military officials have said it was unclear whether this was the case.
The United States and Iraq hope to begin negotiations later this month on a bilateral agreement that would provide a legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. forces, who now operate under a U.S. mandate that expires in December.
Satterfield denied suggestions the agreement would tie the hands of his successor.
"We hope ... to be able to leave to the next president, whoever he or she may be, an Iraq which is more stable, more secure than it has been, a U.S. relationship with Iraq that is stable and projectable over the long term," he said.
"We will not and we cannot bind a new U.S. administration. That’s not our intent. It is to allow that new administration options and time to reflect upon both our interests in Iraq, broader regional and international interests, and how that new administration would wish to pursue them," he added. (Editing by Philip Barbara)