A senior U.S. Army general says Iranian support for violent extremists in Iraq is one of his chief concerns for Iraq's long-term stability. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno spoke two weeks after ending a 15-month tour of duty as the number-two American commander in Iraq.
General Odierno says meddling by Iraq's neighbors is one of his chief concerns for the country's future, along with rivalries among Shiite groups and the possibility that a major incident could increase tensions. Iran is involved, or potentially involved, in all of those.
"They have adjusted to some of the criticism and tried to change how they are supporting but leave no doubt about it that they are still supporting the insurgents," he said.
The general says an example of the extent of Iran's influence among Iraqi Shiite groups came Monday, when Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad.
"A lot was made yesterday of the fact that he was able to walk around and nothing happened. My comment is, I am not surprised, because over the last 12 months whenever a visitor would come from the United States we would either foil a rocket attack or the rocket attack would happen. And guess what, that is because it was being done by Iranian surrogates. And when the government of Iraq holds a meeting there tend to be rocket attacks. Why is that? Because it is done by Iranian surrogates. What I expect out of Iran is they should stop supporting these surrogate organizations who continue to attempt to destabilize the government of Iraq," he added.
General Odierno says as far as he knows those groups are only Shiite, and he has no evidence to support media reports that Iran is also helping Sunni groups.
The general says Iran wants to have a weak government in Baghdad. He says the best way to combat the Iranian effort is to confront its surrogates on the ground, and increase political and public pressure on Iran's leaders.
"We have to continue to let people know what they, in fact, are doing. I think that when they operate inside of Iraq that we need to keep constant pressure on their surrogate networks that they have," continued General Odierno. "And as we find these surrogate networks, let people know what we found, so people do not forget what Iran is trying to do inside of Iraq. I think that is how we can continue to keep pressure on them."
The general believes Iraqi leaders pressed President Ahmandenijad during their meetings this week to stop providing money, weapons and training to violent groups in Iraq.
General Odierno's 15 months as the number two U.S. commander in Iraq coincided with the surge of U.S. forces and a major change in counterinsurgency tactics. He says that effort has given Iraqis the opportunity for a peaceful future, and many Iraqis are already taking advantage of it, including former insurgents.
But, returning to the United States in the midst of a presidential election campaign, General Odierno cautioned against a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops, saying senior military officers must continually assess the situation and political leaders should base their decisions largely on that.