Iran increasing support for extremists in Iraq – US commander


Washington : A top US military commander said on Friday that Iran is showing “a steady increase in support to Shiite extremists” while noting that a new military offensive is undergoing in Iraq to root out al-Qaeda.

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“I think it is Iran’s attempt to continue to destabilize Iraq and inflict as many casualties as they can on U.S. forces who are operating in Iraq”, said US Army Commander of Multinational Corps in Iraq Lieutenant General Ray Odierno in a video-conference from Baghdad to Pentagon reporters.

He added that there are “some indications not widespread” of Iranian support to a small group Sunni insurgents, adding that Tehran is “trying to surge their support to Shiite extremists”.

“We have seen an increased flow of training to mortar teams and rocket teams, we have seen an increase in some flow of weapons and munitions into Iraq,” he added.

Odierno also tackled the work in progress of US troop increase in Iraq, six months after President George W. Bush authorized it to quell violence in Baghdad.

The last 20,000 soldiers of this surge arrived to Baghdad three weeks ago, bringing the total number of US troops to about 150,000.

“We are beyond a surge of forces, and we are now into a surge of operations”, said Odierno.

“We are seeing some encouraging signs, but we have a lot of work ahead of us”, he added noting that the duration of the surge will depend on how well and how soon the Iraqi security forces can take over.

Odierno noted that a new military offensive is underway since June 15 through the summer in Iraq “to defeat al Qaeda insurgents and extremists, deny enemy safe havens, interdict movement, logistics and communications to clear Sunni insurgents and Shiite extremists in, near and around Baghdad”.

“The intent of Phantom Thunder is to protect the Iraqi population and render irreconcilable groups ineffective, while employing political and economic initiatives to buy time and space for the government of Iraq to move towards political accommodation”, said Odierno.

“Our goal is to force the enemy to fight from positions of disadvantage while we maintain the initiative”, he added.

The US military commander said most of the 50 high-value Qaeda leaders captured lately are Iraqis and Sunnis, and a small fraction only is foreigner.

He noted that there are 7,500 new Iraqi soldiers generated every three weeks, 30,000 this year, while praising the Iraqi government efforts to deal with the sectarian tendency of some units as 17 out of 24 battalion commanders have been fired in the national police, according to Odierno.

“Extremists made another attempt to reignite the sectarian violence that followed the February 2006 golden mosque bombing in Samarra”, said Odierno while praising the “immediate actions this time” of the Iraqi government which imposed a curfew in Samarra after the incident.

Although two minarets were destroyed, the reaction has been more muted than in 2006, he added giving credit for that to how the Iraqi people are beginning to reject al-Qaeda and other extremists.

Odierno argued that people of Iraq understand that al-Qaeda is headed by “a foreigner, an Egyptian who is linked to international terrorism and are tired of the false promises, intimidation, brutality and repression that they offer”, referring to second man in al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He gave Anbar province as a prototype for this kind of progress with local population arguing that Iraqis are now “weary of conflict” and reaching out to the coalition forces and the Iraqi government and they want to be part of the solution predicting that Anbar will be under Iraqi security forces next October or November.

Odierno said that Basra could also be turned over for Iraqi security forces by the end of the summer while noting that the US military is not quite happy with the Iraqi security forces down there yet, but they are making progress.