The man nominated to be the top U.S. military officer says he is concerned about what he called Iran's "increasingly hostile" role in the Middle East.  Admiral Mike Mullen discussed Iran, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other issues in a wide-ranging confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.  VOA's Al Pessin reports from Washington.

Admiral Mullen, who currently heads the U.S. Navy, said if confirmed by the Senate as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his first goal will be to address issues in the Middle East and Afghanistan.  He said he is "deeply troubled" by Iran's support for terrorism, its effort to develop nuclear weapons and its involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We have strong indications to evidence that they have provided technology that has made its way into Iraq, is now making its way into Afghanistan, that are killing our soldiers and coalition soldiers," he said.  "Those are what I consider to be facts."

Admiral Mullen says largely-Shiite Iran is now also supporting its former rival in Afghanistan, the largely-Sunni Taliban.

"Iran is now supporting the Taliban, and in the Middle Eastern view of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'  Well, that strategic shift for them, to me, is a big deal," he added.

Admiral Mullen said he hopes diplomacy can convince Iran to play a more constructive role, and military action is not "appropriate at this time."  But he said he would "never take that off the table" as a possibility.

The admiral, who would become the chief military adviser to the president and the defense secretary, said he shares the frustration over the slow pace of progress in Iraq.  But he urged patience and caution as the Congress prepares to receive a progress report in September.  He said the current troops surge is working, he is opposed to timetables for a U.S. troop withdrawal, and any strategy change should be considered very carefully.

"I worry a lot about moves which would turn Iraq into a cauldron," he explained.  "And I think that would be not just bad for the people of Iraq, not just bad for the people of America, but for our vital interests in that part of the world."

Admiral Mullen said Iran would be a "winner" if the United States withdrew and left an unstable Iraq behind.  But he also said it will be difficult to sustain the U.S. troop surge beyond the spring of next year.  And the admiral said no amount of U.S. effort will bring stability to Iraq unless Iraqi leaders use the improved security delivered by the surge to make progress on political disputes.  He called that the "lead issue" in Iraq today.

Senator John Warner, a respected voice on defense issues from President Bush's own Republican Party, expressed frustration at the lack of progress by the Iraqi parliament, which is now on its summer recess.

"How do you think that the troops accept their challenge to lose life and limb to carry out their orders when they see the other side of the partnership is absolutely failing?" he asked.

The nominee to be Admiral Mullen's vice-chairman, Marine Corps General James Cartwright, responded that U.S. troops are committed to their mission, but will not have unlimited patience.

"There comes a point at which they're going to look at that and say, 'How much longer and at what price?' if progress isn't seen," he said.

During the lengthy hearing, Admiral Mullen said Iraq is the central front of a broader, long war on terrorism, which he said "will define the quality of American life for generations to come," a position that echoes President Bush's views.  But he also said the United States must ease the pressure on its military - pressure caused by the war in Iraq - in order to ensure a strong and versatile force for the future.  He called for a re-balancing of U.S. strategic interests to prepare for a variety of potential threats around the world, and to fight terrorists wherever they operate.

"We must get al-Qaida on the run and keep them on the run," he said.  "They are still the essence of the most significant threat we have.  They've got a safe haven now.  They've got leadership, which is reinvigorated.  They've got lieutenants back in place.  They clearly have a stated challenge to hit us."

Admiral Mullen said he is "extremely concerned" that al-Qaida has established what he called an expanding safe haven in Pakistan.  He said he is encouraged that the Pakistani government is moving against the group, but he said he is not sure how quickly it will be able to make progress.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Admiral Mullen will replace General Peter Pace on October 1.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not recommend renomination for General Pace, because senators told him the general's role in developing previous Iraq strategies would make the confirmation process extremely difficult.