BAGHDAD — A top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said Sunday that the use of a lethal roadside bomb thought to come from Iran declined last week after a sharp increase earlier this month.
Ten days ago, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, noted a sharp rise in the use of explosively-formed penetrators. The sophisticated roadside bombs, which fire slugs of metal that can pierce even the most robust armor, are thought to come from Iran and have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers.
At a news conference Sunday, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the use of EFPs has returned to "normal levels" after a brief increase in the first weeks of January. He couldn't explain the increase, nor could he say if Iran was behind the delivery of the weapons to Iraq.
Smith, however, said there's evidence that Iran continues to train and support Iraqi Shiite Muslim groups.
"We continue to see a negative influence by Iran," Smith said. "We clearly see their intent of training and financing continues."
Tensions between the Bush administration and Iran remain high. During his Mideast trip this month, President Bush declared, "Iran is a threat," and his administration and the U.S. military have accused Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force of training and equipping Iraqi Shiite militias that attack U.S. soldiers.
Over the past two months, however, U.S. military officials in Iraq have said, the Iranians have smuggled fewer weapons into Iraq, although the officials have said they aren't sure how to explain the decline.
Sunday's news conference, which summarized the U.S.-led coalition's efforts against al Qaida in Iraq in the past year, was held as a teenage suicide bomber killed the leader of a Sunni group allied with the U.S. near Fallujah. The so-called awakening councils, predominantly Sunni, have been a key part of the U.S. strategy against Sunni Islamic extremists in the past year, and there have been increased attacks on them in recent weeks.
Smith also said that most foreign insurgents in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia, nearly half of them from Saudi Arabia, which President Bush visited on his trip. Other foreign fighters have come from Libya, Yemen, Syria, and even a few from France, Smith said.
In the last year, improved border enforcement by Syria and increased profiling by Saudi officials of single males traveling to Iraq have helped cut the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq in half, Smith said. Between 40 and 50 a month are thought to be entering Iraq now, he said.
Between 50 and 60 percent of those become suicide bombers, and 90 percent of the suicide bombers are thought to be foreigners.
The discovery last fall of papers, including signed pledges, has produced a better understanding of the terrorist network, Smith said.
Although Smith suggested that there are some 10,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, a senior intelligence analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that U.S. officials don't have exact numbers of fighters in Iraq.
Smith showed a map of al Qaida in Iraq's presence this year compared to last year. Although it showed a reduced presence for the terrorist organization, it indicated that there are still numerous Sunni extremists in areas of Mosul, Diyala province, west of Kirkuk and southeast of Baghdad.
U.S. military statistics on Iraq
The U.S. military Sunday released a report on last year's campaign against Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq. Here are some of the statistics compiled by U.S. officials, which couldn't be independently verified.
Al Qaida in Iraq Violence in 2007
Attacks against Iraqi civilians: 4,500
Injured civilians: Nearly 18,000
Coalition Force Efforts Against al Qaida in Iraq in 2007
Terrorists Detained: 8,800
Terrorists killed: 2,400
Of those captured or killed, 52 were emirs, 32 led teams planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), 24 were cell leaders and 92 were "facilitators".
Iraq Security Force (ISF) Growth in 2007
The ISF grew by 106,000 and now totals more than 567,000.
The Iraq ministries of defense and interior have spent more than $3 billion to bolster and equip the security force.
Concerned Local Citizens Groups or "Awakening Councils"
More than 130 throughout Iraq.
More than 80,000 active members, 80 percent are Sunni Muslims and 20 percent are Shiites.
Operation Phantom Phoenix's (a U.S.-Iraqi offensive this month against al Qaida in Iraq and other extremists) first two weeks
Terrorists killed: 121
Terrorists detained: 1,023
Of those captured or killed, 92 considered "high-value targets."
Caches found: 351
IEDs found: 410
IED factories found: 3
Tunnel complexes found: 4
Source: Multi-National Force Iraq Communications, presented by Rear Adm. Gregory Smith.
Lannen writes for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008