WASHINGTON -- Two top U.S. military commanders said yesterday that Iran continues to train and direct violent Shiite militias in Iraq and is trying to permanently weaken the Iraqi government.
Iran has become the biggest long-term threat to Iraqi stability and is encouraging radical Shiite elements to continue attacks while some prominent militia leaders push for cease-fires, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who just completed a 15-month assignment as day-to-day commander in Iraq.
"This is about keeping, in my opinion, a weak government in Iraq," Odierno said at the Pentagon. "I think Iran benefits from that."
Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, was more conciliatory during a Senate hearing, saying that the visit to Baghdad a day earlier by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a "mixed bag" because it offered an opportunity for Iraqi leaders to push Iran to take further steps to stop the flow of weapons and bombs into Iraq.
But pressed by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Fallon said there is evidence that Iran continues to train militants and provide them with weapons.
"I have yet to see anything since I've been in this job in the way of a public action by Iran that's been at all helpful in this region and particularly ... in Iraq," Fallon said.
Iran's role in Iraq remains an intensely debated issue among U.S. policymakers. Many accuse Iran of continued meddling, and others credit Iranian restraint with helping to reduce violence in Iraq over the past year.
Most visibly, there has been a sharp decline in Iraq of sophisticated roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, also called EFPs, which American officials allege are manufactured exclusively in Iran.
In addition, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the most prominent anti-American leader in Iraq, recently extended a cease-fire by his loyalists despite his close ties to Iran.
But Odierno said the importance of al-Sadr's cease-fire has been overstated and that Iranian operatives have been working to peel off radical elements of al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, to continue fighting.
Odierno noted that Ahmadinejad was able to travel Iraqi roads unmolested by violence during his two-day visit to Iraq and said that is evidence that Iran could start and stop Shiite-backed attacks at will.
"Whenever a visitor would come from the United States, we'd either foil a rocket attack or the rocket attack happened," Odierno said. "That's because it was being done by Iranian surrogates. And when the government of Iraq holds a meeting, there tends to be rocket attacks. Why is that? Because it's done by Iranian surrogates."
Odierno, who was recently nominated to become vice chief of staff of the Army, said he agrees with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander in Iraq, that U.S. troop withdrawals should be suspended after July, when the number of troops returns to its level before last year's buildup.
He also suggested that Petraeus' next scheduled set of recommendations, to be presented to Congress in April, might come too soon to determine whether troop reductions can continue through the end of the year.
Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.