AP: Rogue Shiite militia fighters said to be armed and trained by Iran were responsible for nearly three-quarters of attacks that killed or wounded Americans in Baghdad last month, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday. Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) – Rogue Shiite militia fighters said to be armed and trained by Iran were responsible for nearly three-quarters of attacks that killed or wounded Americans in Baghdad last month, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said factions that have broken away from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army were believed responsible for most of the attacks. He said military successes against al-Qaida had left a void that was being filled by the rogue militiamen. He also blamed Iran for stepping up support for the Shiite fighters in an attempt to influence opinions in Washington ahead of a pivotal progress report on Iraq next month.
“We knew this was coming, but there’s been a shift,” Odierno told The Associated Press in an interview.
“Because of the effect we’ve had on al-Qaida in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency, it’s now shifted and so we are focusing very much more on the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi here in Baghdad,” he said, referring to the Arabic term for the Mahdi Army. “They tend to be breakaway groups from Sadr who tend to be funded by Iran, armed by Iran and trained by Iran.”
The U.S. military has accused Iran of fomenting violence in predominantly Shiite Iraq by supporting the militia fighters who have been blamed for much of the sectarian violence that has pushed the country toward civil war.
Odierno said al-Sadr’s group remained a threat as it tried to take over neighborhoods and challenge the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. But he blamed the rogue groups for 73 percent of the attacks that resulted in American casualties, saying that was up from some 38 percent in January, when he first began keeping track of the figures.
He also said the militia fighters were behind an increase in mortar and rocket attacks against the Green Zone, the site of the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government headquarters, as well as other American bases.
“We still have some elements of JAM that try to take over neighborhoods. They challenge the government of Iraq so they are a threat in my mind to peace and stability,” he said after a visit to Rustamiyah, a Shiite stronghold in southeastern Baghdad. While he was in the area, rockets or mortars fell nearby.
“They are not as great a threat as these special (breakaway) groups are who continue to attack both the Green Zone as well as coalition forces and Iraqi security forces.”
The split between anti-U.S. attacks by the Mahdi Army elements and by al-Qaida in Iraq was 50-50 in June, he said. The sharp increase was partly a result of military successes against the terror network as thousands of American and Iraqi troops have flooded the streets of the capital as part of a nearly six-month-old security crackdown.
He also said Iran had sharply increased its support ahead of the September report to Congress by the top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Iraq.
“I think they’re surging their support to these groups based on the September report,” he said, citing intelligence reports. “They’re sending more money in, they’re training more individuals and they’re sending more weapons in.”
Odierno also expressed concern that despite progress against the group, al-Qaida in Iraq-led insurgents would try to stage an attention-grabbing attack ahead of the progress report.
“They are very savvy in terms of information operations and they understand what’s going on in the United States. I think they want to try to influence that,” he said. “We have to stop them from trying to conduct some large attack here over the next 30-45 days.”
The military has succeeded in moving into insurgent strongholds in the capital areas, but Odierno acknowledged the car bombs have continued to take hundreds of lives.
“All it takes is a very small network, he said, adding that American forces believed they had demolished all the car bomb networks.
“They have regenerated themselves and we are now in the process of going after that again,” he said. “They have been able to regenerate a small (vehicle bomb) network which is very serious because they can conduct big attacks. But we feel it is becoming more and more difficult for them.”
He also said the Iraqi government needed to make more political progress.
“We are making progress but it’s slow progress,” he said. “From a security standpoint we’re doing OK. We’re making progress. The issue becomes now we have to get the governmental entities to begin doing what they need to do. I see the government of Iraq trying to solve these problems but they still have a long ways to go.”