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Fallon watches for an end to Iran’s aid to militants

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Bloomberg: Admiral William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he’ll be watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq next month for signs his country might end its support for Iraqi militants. By Janine Zacharia

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) — Admiral William Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he’ll be watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq next month for signs his country might end its support for Iraqi militants.

“We know that they’ve been supplying lethal aid and training to these criminal elements of the extremist militias,” Fallon said in an interview in Doha late yesterday. “If the meeting results in a dialogue that might throttle that kind of behavior back, I’d be all for it. But it remains to be seen. They certainly haven’t been helpful so far.”

Ahmadinejad’s March 2 visit to Iraq will be the first by an Iranian president since his country’s 1979 revolution. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s. The ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim-led regime in Iraq has led to increased political and economic ties between the two nations. Iran and Iraq both have Shiite Muslim majorities.

Fallon said the U.S. has seen a leveling off of the Iranian-supplied “explosively formed penetrators,” which can pierce armor, deployed against Iraqi and coalition forces. Iran denies it is supplying the weapons, known as EFPs, to Iraqi militants.

“I think it’s probably not too smart to draw too many conclusions from these tactical changes,” said Fallon, 63, who is in Doha for the U.S.-Islamic World Forum sponsored by the Qatari Foreign Ministry and the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “What we’re looking for is a long-term change in behavior.”

Summer Pause

Fallon also endorsed General David Petraeus’s decision to pause this summer before deciding whether to continue withdrawing U.S. combat brigades from Iraq later in the year. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, is due to report to Congress next month on troop levels.

Fallon, echoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Petraeus, said he favors a pause in troop reductions from Iraq after about 20,000 American soldiers are sent home by July.

The five brigades being withdrawn form the core of a U.S. buildup last year that brought the level of American forces in Iraq to more than 160,000. U.S. officials say the buildup has improved security.

“I think it’s a reasonable approach to let the dust settle when those five” brigades “are out of there and the ground has been reallocated to remaining units to see where we are. How long, and to what extent, remains to be seen, but let’s let General Petraeus take a look at this thing,” Fallon said.

Asked about Gates’s previous comments that the number of brigades could be reduced to 10, rather than 15, this year, Fallon said both he and the defense secretary realized, “things never seem to move quite as fast, as quickly as you might want. But we’re in a pretty darn good position.”

Pakistan Election

Fallon, whose area of operations encompasses the Middle East and much of South Asia, also expressed hope that Pakistani parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18 will allow “this country to achieve some degree of stability and security.”

Asked if he’s concerned that charges of election rigging by Pakistan’s opposition might lead to instability, Fallon said elections are a positive step for the nation, a key ally in U.S. efforts to battle al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the region.

“Pakistan has a history of instability. There’s no getting around that,” he said. “What we’re looking for is steps in the right direction. The fact that there are elections, there’s a democratic process in work, is a good sign. And let’s hope that it works out.”

Election campaigning has been marred by terrorist attacks, including the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Opposition parties say the Feb. 18 ballot won’t be fair under President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 and imposed a state of emergency last November in the face of months of demonstrations against his rule.

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