BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. military forces have increased security at some American bases in Iraq in response to an increased threat of attacks from Iranian-backed militants, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Tuesday.
General Ray Odierno named the Shi’ite militia Kata’ib Hizballah, which the U.S. State Department says has ties to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as the group behind the threats.
“In the last couple weeks there’s been an increased threat ... and so we’ve increased our security on some of our bases,” Odierno told reporters at a briefing in Baghdad.
“This is another attempt by Iran and others to influence the U.S. role here.”
U.S. officials frequently accuse Tehran of meddling in Iraq’s affairs and of backing Shi’ite militia groups operating there. Tehran in turn says violence in Iraq is the result of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Odierno said those behind the threats had gone to Iran for special training and then returned to Iraq, and “experts” had been sent from Iran to help them “in the last month or so”.
“Whether that’s connected directly to the Iranian government -- we can argue about that,” he said. “But they are clearly connected to Iranian IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps).”
The two countries are also at odds over Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for peaceful purposes but Washington and its allies say is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Washington has refused to rule out using force as a last resort, and Iran says it would respond by attacking U.S. interests in the region.
There has been no increase in attacks on U.S. convoys in Iraq, which continue at a fairly low level, Odierno said.
The United States still has about 74,000 troops in Iraq, Odierno said, and remains on track to draw down to 50,000 by Sept. 1, when Washington will formally end combat operations, more than seven years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
U.S. forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.
GULF OIL PLATFORMS
Odierno said Iraq’s naval capacity in the Gulf was growing quickly and its forces had taken over defence of one of Iraq’s offshore oil platforms.
The development of its oil reserves, the world’s third largest, is critical to Iraq’s plan to rebuild infrastructure and revitalise an economy devastated by years of war and economic sanctions.
“I think that they (Iraqi security forces) will have the capability to conduct most of the security of their platforms,” he said. “We will have to do an assessment in 2011 to decide whether we’ll have to provide some support or assistance in the Arabian Gulf, and the focus is really on the oil platforms.”
Iraq has signed contracts with global oil firms to develop its giant oilfields and many of the companies are in the process of setting up shop in southern Iraq.
“Over the next 17 months we’ll be here to build confidence between the oil companies and the Iraqi security forces,” Odierno said.
Odierno, who announced in early June that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 34 of the top 42 al Qaeda leaders in Iraq in recent months, said the damage done to the militant group had impaired its ability to accomplish its primary goal, “to delegitimise the government and have the government fail”.
“Their ability to reach that goal has been significantly degraded,” he said. “I believe in order for them to do that it would take years and years of reorganisation.”
(Editing by Michael Christie and Kevin Liffey)