USA TODAY: The number of deadly armor-piercing roadside bombs, which the U.S. government has linked to Iran, has dropped by nearly 70% in the past three months, the U.S. military says.
By Jim Michaels, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The number of deadly armor-piercing roadside bombs, which the U.S. government has linked to Iran, has dropped by nearly 70% in the past three months, the U.S. military says.
The decline comes in the wake of Iraq-led offensives against Shiite militia strongholds.
Washington is also taking diplomatic steps to blunt the threat Iran poses to the region. A top U.S. diplomat will attend a meeting with Iranian officials this weekend to discuss Tehran's nuclear program, a rare high-level session between the two countries.
U.S. commanders are cautious in describing the decline in armor-piercing bombs in Iraq, saying there is no evidence Tehran is backing off support for Shiite militants there.
"There are a number of rockets and mortars that we know are of Iranian descent that we have taken off the battlefield," Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview. "It's hard to determine whether that's been the principal cause of seeing fewer attacks or there's been some other cause."
The numbers include both attacks and bombs found before they are detonated. More than half are discovered before they explode.
The decline parallels a broad drop in violence that Austin attributes to success in securing the population, improving Iraqi forces and a shift in Iraqi public opinion toward U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Some experts say Tehran has been dealt a setback in Iraq, where the U.S. government says Iran has financed and armed Shiite militias. Iran denies doing so.
Recent military successes in Shiite militia strongholds have strengthened the legitimacy of Iraq's government and weakened militias that had been supported by Iran, analysts say. Iraq's military led the offensives, with back-up from American forces.
"The Iranians got kicked in the teeth in the past six months," said Kenneth Pollack, of the Brookings Institution.
Militias, such as the Mahdi Army, grew in prominence as they provided protection for Shiites during sectarian fighting in 2006 before the buildup of U.S. forces. At the time, Iraq's military was weak and viewed largely as a sectarian force.
Experts say the militias abused their power, losing popular support at the same time Iraq's military grew in strength and legitimacy.
A major test for Iraq's military was a spring offensive in Basra, where the people were "delighted to have the government troops there," Pollack said. "They were so desperate to get rid of" the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Despite the decreased activity in Iraq, most experts say Iran still wants to play a role there. "I think we should proceed from the assumption that their underlying motives haven't changed," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.