Amid threat, U.S. heightens security at its Iraq bases

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 10:31 AM

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military has beefed up security at some of its bases after a threat that an Iranian-backed militant group was planning to attack, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Tuesday.

Men from Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite group that U.S. officials say is trained and funded by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, crossed into Iran for training and returned to conduct attacks just as U.S. troop levels plummet over the summer, Gen. Ray Odierno said. By September, only 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq.

"In the last couple weeks there's been an increased threat," Odierno said in a briefing to reporters. "We've increased our security on some of our bases. We've also increased activity with the Iraqi Security Forces. This is another attempt by Iran and others to influence the U.S. role here inside Iraq."

So far the threat has not manifested, he said.

Odierno said the Iranian-backed militant groups seem focused primarily on attacking U.S. troops, and don't pose a long-term threat to the Iraqi government.

The Kataib Hezbollah group is plotting to use powerful rocket-propelled bombs called Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions, or IRAMs, Odierno said. The short-range projectiles are propane tanks packed with explosives and launched with 107 mm rockets, often off the back of pickup trucks.

In the past seven years there have been a total of 16 attacks on U.S. bases with IRAMS, including five in the past year, the U.S. officials said. With the U.S. military moving from smaller bases to larger, more densely populated bases as part of the ongoing drawdown, the IRAMs could be particularly lethal.

"There is a very consistent threat from Iranian surrogates operating in Iraq," Odierno said. "Whether it's connected directly to the Iranian government? We can argue about that. But it's clearly connected to" the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran has been an influential and sometimes nefarious neighbor to Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Iraqi officials often fly to neighboring Tehran for consultation, and the Islamic republic is a top trade partner for Iraq.

U.S. officials say Iran still funnels weaponry to Shiite militia groups in Iraq, although it does so much less frequently than it did in years past. Overall, Iran is pursuing more of a "soft power" approach in Iraq, Odierno said, trying to exert influence through economic investment and political pressure so as not to alienate the Iraqi people.

"The Iranian-supported surrogates have always been a larger threat to U.S. forces" than to Iraqi security forces," Odierno said. "They target specifically U.S. forces. In my mind they are not a threat to the government of Iraq or the formation of the government of Iraq."

Odierno reaffirmed that the U.S. troop withdrawal remains on track even though Iraq has yet to form a new government, more than four months after the national election. There are currently about 74,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At the height of the U.S. military surge there were more than 165,000.

Iraq doesn't need more troops now, Odierno said; it needs political and economic support.

"For us it's about eliminating the environment that allows extremism to exist. We haven't eliminated that environment. That environment will get eliminated through economic and political progress," Odierno said. "We're not leaving tomorrow. We're going to have 50,000 American soldiers on the ground here. . . . We're not abandoning Iraq. We're changing our commitment from military-dominated to one that is civilian-led."

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