BAGHDAD — Shiite Iraqi militants have trained in Iran in preparation for attacks against U.S. military bases as American combat forces prepare to withdraw by September, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said on Tuesday.
In an unusually candid assessment, Gen. Ray Odierno said that Kataib Hezbollah - an Iraqi Shiite militant group backed by Iran - may be seeking to take some credit for the long-planned departure of U.S. troops.
"For years these groups have been (saying) that they are forcing the U.S. to leave," Odierno told reporters in Baghdad. A significant strike "could be a huge propaganda tool for them in the future."
So far, he said the U.S. had seen only seen "fairly low level" attacks on military convoys, and that Al Qaida in Iraq had also been "significantly degraded" in the past year and lost contact with leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Overall violence in Iraq has dropped considerably in the past two years.
As a result of the intelligence reports about Kataib Hezbollah's apparent preparations, Odierno said U.S. forces had "increased our security in some of our bases." He said that the U.S. would not adjust plans to cut troop numbers from 74,000 today to 50,000 noncombat soldiers by the end of August.
Odierno said that while any connection between Kataib Hezbollah and the Iranian government was "very convoluted," the recent militant activities are "clearly connected" to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force.
"What we do know is the people that are getting ready to conduct this attack went back, got special training in Iran, they came back (to Iraq), and we knew that there were experts sent from Iran into Iraq to help them to do this in the last month or so," said Odierno. The intelligence details could not be independently verified.
Historically, elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guard have been known to conduct operations abroad without the knowledge or direct approval of the civilian leadership in Tehran. Such operations have, at times, appeared to directly undermine Iran's stated policies.
Whatever role elements in Iran may have played in preparing Iraqi Shiite militants for new attacks, U.S. officers say the Islamic Republic has been moving away from overt military influence in Iraq, which was evident especially - according to U.S. military claims - since 2007.
"Like anybody else, they reassess how their strategy is working," and events in Iraq had often "backfired" on Iran, said Odierno. He pointed to the 2008 U.S.-Iraq signing of the Status of Forces Agreement, provincial elections in early 2009, and the national elections in March in which candidates playing to nationalist sentiment - rather than sectarian sympathies - did best.
"So what (Iran has) done is they've changed," said Odierno. "Although they still provide lethal aid and support, it is significantly less than what it once was. I think they are moving more towards a soft-power" approach, using political and economic influence more than supporting militants.
ODIERNO CONFIDENT IN IRAQI SECURITY FORCES
The U.S. commander said he was confident that Iraqi security forces - which have already been in charge of security across much of the country for months - were capable of keeping Iraq stable. At least 11 people were killed in attacks across Iraq on Tuesday, including three who died when an explosive device was reported to have gone off in a mock coffin at a demonstration.
Bombs and shootings are still common each day across Iraq, but the death toll has dropped dramatically from the 3,000 per month peak in 2007. Much of that was sectarian killing between Sunnis and Shiites, as insurgents sought to ethnically "cleanse" neighborhoods with violence.
But many also died in car bomb attacks and other spectacular events claimed by Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and various Sunni insurgent groups. The two top leaders of AQI were slain in a U.S. airstrike in late April, an event Odierno said at the time was "potentially the most significant blow to Al Qaida in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency."
On Tuesday, Odierno said U.S. and Iraqi forces had since then "picked up" the two replacements for the top leaders, and that AQI was a now "significantly different organization than they were a year ago, or six months ago."
Insurgents stepped up lethal bombings in the aftermath of the March 7 national election, which has yet to yield a government after more than four months, as politicians bicker. But Odierno said that AQI's "ability to surge (attacks) I think is significantly less."
The general also said that U.S. forces "have seen no communication between Al Qaida in Iraq and Al Qaida senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan." After the deaths of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian leader of AQI, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of the umbrella Islamic State of Iraq, the senior leadership tried but failed to contact remaining AQI leaders, said Odierno.
"We know that over the last year they have had significant problems - it takes them forever to pass messages, and to pass messages back," Odierno said. "But after (the leaders' deaths) they attempted to send, the way they normally do, an encrypted message, and there's nobody on this end who could un-encrypt it."
"And since then there has been no communication between," Odierno added. "There has been a serious break, and it shows the capability, it shows the status of the leadership here now, that it's significantly reduced (from) what it once was."