Iran is furnishing new, more deadly weapons to Shiite Muslim militias targeting U.S. troops in Iraq as part of a pattern of renewed attempts to exert influence in the region, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
About 40 percent of the deaths of American soldiers since the official end of U.S. combat operations almost 10 months ago have occurred in the past few weeks as a result of the attacks, Gates said yesterday in an interview at the Pentagon that also touched on Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. has raised the attacks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and others, said Gates, who leaves office today. Gates will be succeeded by Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Iran is “facilitating weapons, they’re facilitating training, there’s new technology that they’re providing,” Gates said. “They’re stepping this up, and it’s a concern.”
Iran is supporting radical Shiite groups intent on “killing as many as possible in order to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that, in effect, they drove us out of Iraq at the end of the year,” he said.
The attacks are increasing as the U.S. and Iraqi governments are discussing politically acceptable ways to extend the American military presence beyond December. Iraq’s nascent security forces have struggled to combat Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda affiliates and Shiite militias, and the country lacks the military capability to defend its borders.
The aid to radical allies inside Iraq reflects Iran’s stepped-up efforts to wield influence in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, Gates said. The pattern has become particularly evident since populist revolts began against authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, collectively known as the Arab Spring.
“They didn’t create the Arab Spring or start it, but they are clearly trying to exploit it wherever they can,” said Gates.
In Iraq, more than 100,000 U.S. troops left in the year leading up to the Sept. 1 transition from combat operations to a mission that primarily advises and supports Iraqi troops. The goal was to withdraw the remaining 50,000 soldiers at the end of this year.
The Pentagon has recorded 28 soldiers killed in action since the start of the new mission, called Operation New Dawn. Almost 3,500 previously had been killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The department two days ago announced that two U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq’s Diyala province when their unit was struck by a roadside bomb. Staff Sergeant Russell J. Proctor, 25, of Oroville, California, and Private First Class Dylan J. Johnson, 20, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were with the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday in a rocket attack on their base near the border with Iran, the Associated Press said today, citing an unidentified U.S. military official who blamed the strike on a Shiite Muslim militia with Iranian links.
The Iranian threat to the U.S. forces has increased “in the last three or four months,” Gates said. Iran is supplying bigger “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs, a particularly powerful type of roadside bomb, and “improvised rocket-assisted munitions,” or IRAMs, he said. IRAMs are bombs capable of creating a more powerful explosion than a conventional mortar shell.
Threat to Armor
The U.S. also is concerned about growing supplies of advanced rocket-propelled grenades, Gates said. The weapons, popular with insurgent groups, are effective against U.S. armor.
“So they are really making this as difficult as they can,” Gates said. The weapons are manufactured in Iran, he said.
One of the achievements Gates has touted for his 4 1/2 years in office is wrestling with the Pentagon to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in developing technology to better protect U.S. forces from roadside bombs.
He pressed to speed purchases of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, in part to counter Iranian-made EFPs. He then bore down to get all-terrain versions of the vehicles, called MATVs, for Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. He also established a task force to find other ways of intercepting and countering the devices.
Accusations in 2006
The issue of Iran supplying powerful roadside bombs capable of penetrating the thickest armor flared in 2006, when the U.S. repeatedly accused the government in Tehran of seeking to undermine Iraq and the foreign coalition in the country.
The U.S. said the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was providing the aid. Iranian leaders denied the allegations.
The issue began to wane in late 2007, when the U.S. military acknowledged a decline in the number of Iranian-supplied bombs.
Gates said at the time that he doubted the credibility of assurances from Iranian officials that they would stop facilitating the deadly roadside bomb attacks.
During a Nov. 1, 2007, news conference at the Pentagon, Gates said Iran’s most senior leaders “probably” are aware that elements of their military are helping the bombers, adding that he hadn’t seen definitive intelligence on that point.
He said the Iranians had given assurances to Iraqi officials that they would try to halt such aid.
Gates said yesterday that there had been a decline in attacks with EFPs until the recent resurgence.
On Iran’s nuclear program, the defense secretary said he still believes the country’s leaders are intent on building an atomic weapon and are “getting closer,” Gates said.
“There is, I think, a general view that they may be seeking what people call a threshold capability, which means not really having an assembled weapon but the capability to move quickly to a weapon should they choose,” Gates said.
It would be difficult to verify that point, he said. “If they get that close, then you have to assume that they have the weapons themselves,” Gates said.
Iran’s nuclear program, which the country’s leaders say is intended solely to generate energy, is under the scrutiny of inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency.
“The real threshold is when will they have enough low-enriched uranium to make it worth their while to throw out the IAEA and then enrich that uranium to weapons-grade so that they would have several weapons,” Gates said. The question, he said, is “At what point could they do that?”
Iran also would need to develop a weapon to employ the uranium.
Still, the window of time in which Iran might achieve a nuclear weapon remains one to three years, Gates said, declining to comment on overt or covert efforts to throw a wrench into the program.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said international sanctions and technical difficulties have slowed Iran’s nuclear progress.