By Army Sgt. Sara Moore
American Forces Press Service
April 8, 2008 - The recent spike in violence in southern Iraq highlights the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming and directing extremist "special groups" in Iraq and generates renewed concern about Iran's influence in the country, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said today. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee along with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker to provide an update on the situation there and report on progress made since September.
Both leaders said Iraq has made significant security progress, but Iran's support to terror networks is a serious threat to stability in the new democracy.
At the end of March, violence flared in the southern city of Basra after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces to clamp down on illegal militias, criminals and thugs. Shiia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi organization contested the Iraqi security forces, and fighting spread north to Baghdad and other Shiia cities in the south.
Petraeus said today that the bulk of the weaponry the extremist special groups used during that surge in violence was supplied by Iran.
"The special groups activities have, in fact, come out in greater relief during the violence of recent weeks," Petraeus said. "It is they who have the expertise to shoot rockets more accurately, shoot mortars more accurately, and to employ some of the more advanced material -- the explosively formed projectiles and the like -- that have not just killed our soldiers and Iraqi soldiers, but also have been used to assassinate two southern governors in past months and two southern police chiefs."
This higher level of training and weaponry points to Iranian influence on the special groups, Petraeus said. The recent violence helped to highlight the problem of Iranian influence for the Iraqi government, he said, noting that government officials have conveyed concern to their Iranian contacts about the activities with the special groups.
Crocker agreed that Iranian influence remains a problem in Iraq, and that recent violence has highlighted that problem. The United States knows more about Iranian-supported extremist networks in Iraq than ever, he said, and will continue to uproot and destroy them. At the same time, the United States is supporting constructive relations between Iran and Iraq to improve the security situation in Iraq, he said.
"I think one might look for a reconsideration in Tehran as to just where they want to go in Iraq, because over the long term, ... their interests, I think, are best served by the success of the state and this government," Crocker said. "No country other than Iraq itself suffered more under Saddam Hussein than did Iran, with that brutal eight-year war. So they should be thinking strategically. And the reaction to the militias they support, I would hope, would lead them to do that."
Together with Iraqi security forces, coalition forces have focused on the Iranian-backed special groups, Petraeus said. Iraqi and coalition leaders have repeatedly noted a desire that Iran live up to promises made by its leaders to stop support for these extremist groups, he said, but the activities have continued.
"We should all watch Iranian actions closely in the weeks and months ahead, as they will show the kind of relationship Iran wishes to have with its neighbor and the character of future Iranian involvement in Iraq," he said.
Crocker also discussed the need for Iraq's neighbors to become invested in Iraq's future. Turkey hosted the second ministerial meeting of Iraq's neighbors in November, and Kuwait will host the third meeting later this month, he noted. While the presence of the PKK terrorist organization on the Iraqi-Turkish border has increased tension between the two countries, the governments are still working to strengthen their ties, he said.
Support for Iraq from other Arab countries needs to improve, Crocker said, applauding Bahrain's recent announcement that it will return an ambassador to Iraq. Other Arab nations need to follow suit, as Iraq is a founding member of the Arab League and an integral part of the Arab world, he said.