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US Defense Chief Welcomes Iraqi Delegation's Trip to Iran

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to send a delegation to Iran to confront leaders there with evidence of support by some Iranian elements for insurgents inside Iraq. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Speaking during a visit to a U.S. military base in Texas, Secretary Gates called the move "a very important step" because he believes Iranian leaders do care about their future relationship with Iraq.

"In essence, forcing them to make a choice, do they want to work with the government of Iraq or are they going to subvert the government of Iraq, and for a Shiite [Iraqi] prime minister to send a delegation to Iran, presumably to confront the Iranians with that kind of a choice, I think, is a healthy development," he said.

U.S. officials have frequently accused Iranian operatives from the elite Quds Force of providing money, training and equipment to Iraqi Shiite militas, including high-technology, high-powered roadside bombs. Last week, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, cited new evidence of what he called continuing and increasing Iranian support for the Iraqi militias, in spite of a promise by Iran's president late last year. The admiral said U.S. military officials in Iraq would soon make the evidence public. Iran has denied the charge.

The Iraqi delegation that traveled to Iran Wednesday reportedly carried the new evidence, in an effort to convince top Iranian leaders to force an end to the support for violent Iraqi groups. U.S. officials said Wednesday the Iraqi government would take the lead in trying to deal with the issue. But Secretary Gates says it may be some time before the results of the effort are fully known.

"Well, I don't know how you evaluate the success or failure of a mission like that, except over time, and looking back and seeing if the supply of weapons and training and so on has diminished," he said.

The continuing Iranian involvement with Iraqi insurgents, and a new U.S. allegation of continuing Iranian support for Afghan insurgents, have led to questions about possible U.S. military action against Iran. But Pentagon officials say, while they have the capacity to do that, they do not believe it is imminent, and they say the United States and its allies have much more work to do through diplomatic channels before considering any such move.