Panetta warns of Iranian weapons threat in Iraq

Defense chief raises alarm in Baghdad stop

Boston Globe – BAGHDAD – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said yesterday that weapons he said were supplied by Iran had become a “tremendous concern’’ for the United States in recent weeks in Iraq, where more American troops died in June than in any month during the three previous years.

 “We’re seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they’ve really hurt us,’’ Panetta said before arriving here on an unannounced trip, his first to the Iraqi capital as defense secretary.

Panetta is the third top American official to raise an alarm about Iranian influence in Iraq in recent days.

The US ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, recently said that the United States had “forensic proof’’ that weapons and weapons parts from Iran were being used by Shi’ite militias against US troops. His remarks were echoed by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Panetta’s comments, made a day before he is to meet with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, were aimed at urging the Iraqi military to take more action against Shi’ite militias and to see Iran as the Obama administration does – not just as a threat to US troops, but as a potential cancer in a future Iraq.

“The key right now is to make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that the Iraqis within their own country are doing what they can to stop the flow of those weapons and to stop the Shia from using them,’’ Panetta said.

US officials said that Iran supplies the militias with high-powered rockets and parts for powerful bombs that can pierce armor. In June, 15 US troops were killed in Iraq, nine of them in high-powered rocket attacks, US officials said. That was the highest US death toll for any month during the past two years.

Panetta is in Iraq as all 46,000 remaining American troops are withdrawing this year under an agreement between the two countries.

Both Iraqi and American military commanders believe that some American forces should stay beyond the end of the year, but few Iraqi politicians are willing to admit publicly that they need US help. Obama administration officials say they will consider staying only if the Iraqis ask.

In April, Robert M. Gates, Panetta’s predecessor as defense secretary, all but begged the Iraqis to ask and said time was running out. Three months later the situation is largely unchanged, although the Iraqis appear to be making some moves toward making a decision. Yesterday, Panetta echoed Gates.

“If they are to make a proposal with regards to a continuing US presence there, they have to make a formal request – that we would obviously consider,’’ he said.

Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group, created by Congress in 2006 to consider a better strategy for the war, which was spiraling out of control at the time.

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