Bloomberg: Iranian support for Shiite militia groups poses the biggest threat to long-term stability in Iraq, where recent improvements in security are "fragile," the U.S. Defense Department said.
By Ed Johnson
Oct. 1 (Bloomberg) — Iranian support for Shiite militia groups poses the biggest threat to long-term stability in Iraq, where recent improvements in security are "fragile," the U.S. Defense Department said.
Iran continues to "fund, train, arm and direct" groups intent on destabilizing its neighbor and its influence in Iraq is "malign," the Pentagon said in its quarterly report to Congress.
While civilian deaths between June and August were down 77 percent on the same period last year, Iraq faces unresolved issues that may trigger fresh violence, including the status of the oil city of Kirkuk and the integration of Sunni tribesmen into the security forces, according to the report.
The Bush administration has repeatedly accused Iran of training and financing insurgents in Iraq and stoking violence between the country's Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. The Islamic Republic denies the allegations and blames the U.S.-led military occupation for creating conflict among Iraqis.
Iran shares a 1,458-kilometer (906-mile) border with Iraq and both have Shiite Muslim majorities. The two states fought an eight-year war in the 1980s and have increased political and economic ties since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-led regime.
Iranian support for militants "remains a principle reason for continued violence" in Iraq, the Pentagon said.
Iran is providing refuge and support to elements of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia that are resisting his calls to stop fighting, according to the report.
Between June and August there were 29 deaths blamed on sectarian violence in Baghdad, the lowest level on record, the Pentagon said. That compares with more than 1,200 deaths in the same period in 2007, according to the report.
The Defense Department attributed the drop in violence in Iraq to the surge in U.S. troop numbers last year, improvements in the Iraqi Security Forces and the help of about 98,000 Sunni tribesmen, known as the Sons of Iraq, who are now allied with the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaeda.
The last of five brigades sent to Iraq last year as part of the surge came home in August. There are now about 140,000 American military personnel in Iraq.
Integrating the Sunni tribesmen into the security forces and giving them permanent employment is "critical" to Iraq's stability, the Pentagon said. Reports of Iraqi government forces targeting the tribesmen are a concern, it added.
The New York Times said in August that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government ordered the arrest of the tribesmen in northeastern Diyala province, as the Sons of Iraq showed signs of becoming a political force.
The Pentagon hailed the passing of an election law last month and said it demonstrated Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen lawmakers can compromise on key legislation.
It noted "Kurd-Arab tensions centered on the status of Kirkuk" haven't been resolved and may indicate "the road ahead will not be smooth or linear."
Iraq's Parliament last month failed to resolve a dispute over the representation of ethnic groups in the oil-rich Kirkuk region. Holding provincial elections is a benchmark for the U.S.-backed policy of national reconciliation.