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U.S. Troop Extension in Iraq Hinges on Iranian Attacks

July 7 (Bloomberg) -- Any U.S. agreement to keep troops in Iraq beyond the planned Dec. 31 withdrawal should be contingent on Iraqi authorities cutting off the flow of Iranian weapons and training to the militias killing American soldiers, said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. officials have said they would consider an Iraqi government request to keep some of the almost 50,000 troops in the country longer, to help secure air space and improve the Iraqi security force’s capabilities.

Mullen repeated former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s assertion last week that Iran, which is predominately Shiite Muslim, is furnishing new, more deadly weapons to Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops across the border in Iraq, after a lull since 2008. The result has been a spike in U.S. troop deaths, Gates said in an interview before leaving office last week.

“Iran is very directly supporting extremist Shia groups which are killing our troops” in Iraq, Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. Any extension of the U.S. troop presence “has to be done in conjunction with control of Iran in that regard.”

The condition for a U.S. troop extension poses a challenge to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Shiite Muslim political party has struggled to manage Iran’s political and military influence.

Iranian Denials

Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi denied Gates’s allegations, calling them repeated lies and saying U.S. officials should review their policies in the region, the state-run Fars news agency reported on July 2.

The highest levels of the Iranian regime know about the aid to Iraqi militias, Mullen said. He declined to say they were encouraging the moves.

“There’s no question they want influence, particularly in the south,” Mullen said. Forensics prove that “they are shipping high-tech weapons in there,” he said. “That has to be dealt with, not just now, but obviously in the future as well.”

About 40 percent of the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq 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 in an interview before leaving office last week.

‘More Lethal’

The technology Iran is providing is “more lethal” than what it furnished the militias in 2006 and 2007, Mullen said.

The Iranians “make conscious choices about this,” he said. “They decided in 2008 that they were going to back off. They had. We are now seeing it increase.”

Iran is supplying a “significant” number of weapons, including “more lethal” bombs called “improvised rocket-assisted munitions,” Mullen said. IRAMs are more powerful than a conventional mortar shell. He also cited “explosively formed penetrators,” an armor-piercing type of roadside bomb that Gates said are now bigger than before.

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.

Mullen left open the possibility that the U.S. would take action itself to eliminate the threat.

“Anything we do would be very clearly focused on the inherent right of self-defense,” he said. “There’s a formal end to combat operations. There’s never a formal end to self-defense, and being able to respond and defend yourself is very much a part” of the mission.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at Msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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