By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006
Iranian support for extremists inside Iraq has shown a "noticeable increase" this year, with Tehran's special forces providing weapons and bomb training to anti-U.S. groups, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.
Other U.S. officials have complained about Iranian meddling in Iraq, but the criticism of Tehran by Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. was the most direct and explicit so far. Speaking at a Pentagon news conference before an array of reporters and television cameras, the general listed Iranian influence as one of the four major problems he faces in Iraq.
"We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED technology and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and in some cases probably in Lebanon through their surrogates," Casey said, using the military abbreviation for "improvised explosive devices," or roadside bombs. The Iranians are "using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq, both against us and against the Iraqi people."
Iran's actions are a major concern not only because of attacks on U.S. forces, but also because the durability of the new Iraqi government depends in part on the willingness of Iraqi's Sunni minority to accept the government. The Sunnis will be unlikely to do so if the Iranian government is perceived as playing a major role in supporting and even arming violent Shiite factions.
"Since January, we have seen an upsurge in their support, particularly to the Shia extremist groups," Casey said. "They are providing weapons, training and equipment to Shia insurgents, and that equipment is being used against us and Iraqis."
In the wide-ranging news conference, Casey also touched on several other aspects of the three-year-old U.S. war in Iraq. He said that insurgent attacks are up but insisted that "the insurgency hasn't expanded." About 90 percent of its attacks are launched within 30 miles of Baghdad, he said.
Discussing the state of al-Qaeda in Iraq since the killing earlier this month of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Casey said, "They're hurt, but they're not finished. . . . They're feeling the pain right now."
Casey expressed confidence in the growing strength of the Iraqi army but voiced concern about the state of the Iraqi police, especially in the Baghdad area, where, he said, their operations are influenced by militias. Sunnis often accuse the police, who are controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, of working closely with Shiite death squads.
"There are challenges with the police that I think you know, and the performance of the police varies widely around the country," he said. "Probably the greatest challenge for the new minister of interior is to restore the confidence of the Iraqi people in general and the Sunni population in particular in the Ministry of Interior forces."
Casey also appeared to stand by, but soften, his previous assertion that the number of U.S. troops would be reduced this year. "I'm confident that we'll be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year," he said.
There are about 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That is down from a peak of about 160,000 in winter 2005-06, but close to the typical level over the past three years of about 135,000. The widespread expectation inside the U.S. Army is that by the end of this year, the U.S. presence will be cut to about 100,000.
Since the fall of 2003, top commanders have wanted to reduce the U.S. troop commitment but have been unable to turn that hope into reality.
Casey appeared to stop a bit short of his statement 11 months ago that held out the prospect of "fairly substantial" cuts in troop levels. In July 2005, he said: "If the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions" after the Iraqi elections in 2006.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who uncharacteristically played a supporting role during the news conference, added that the size of U.S. forces "very likely will go down and up and down and up depending on the circumstances and depending on the need."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.