Thursday, June 22, 2006

The top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that covert Iranian troops are training brethren Iraqi Shi’ites on how to attack U.S. and coalition troops.

The disclosure by Army Gen. George Casey is the most pointed Pentagon criticism of Iran’s militant regime, which is embroiled in a debate with the United States because Washington demands an end to Tehran’s uranium enrichment.

In a press conference at the Pentagon, Gen. Casey said he has made no final decision on U.S. troop withdrawals for this year. He said he first needs to discuss the security situation with Iraq’s recently named defense and interior ministers. There are now 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down 5,000 from April’s level.

“We expect that Gen. Casey will come back and make a recommendation after he has had those discussions, which he has not yet had,” said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at the same press conference.

The Pentagon has designated Marine and Army combat units to prepare to deploy to Iraq later this year. If the administration decides to decrease the force from 127,000, it likely would decide not to send some of those units.

U.S. officials have said Iran, a Shi’ite nation, has flooded the predominately southern Shi’ite areas of Iraq with money and political operators to create a “greater Iran” more sympathetic to Tehran than to the multiethnic Baghdad. Mr. Rumsfeld said in March that elements of the Revolutionary Guards, which enforce adherence to Iran’s radical Muslim theocracy, “are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq.”

“We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, [improvised explosive device] technology and training to Shi’a extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and, in some cases, probably in Lebanon through their surrogates,” Gen. Casey said. “They are using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq.”

Gen. Casey delivered his first Iraq assessment to the Pentagon press corps since U.S. troops killed Abu Musab Zarqawi, who led al Qaeda in Iraq, on June 7.

The general said some Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the anti-U.S. insurgency, are “reaching out and looking for ways to re-evaluate their options and to come out of the resistance against the occupation with honor. … We and the Iraqi government have several different strands of contacts going on, and there are opportunities in that regard that we just haven’t had before.”

The key to bringing troops home is the development of Iraq’s security forces. Gen. Casey said that six months ago, four brigades and 23 battalions took the lead in counterinsurgency operations. Today, the numbers are 18 brigades and 69 battalions.

“Great progress here over six months,” he said. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year.”

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