US commander: Iran still supporting militias in Iraq

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno says Islamic Republic must be more helpful to its neighbor.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno 88 (photo credit: )
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno 88
(photo credit: )
Iran is still training, funding and arming insurgents in Iraq, the former No. 2 US military commander in Iraq said Tuesday. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters at a Defense Department news conference that Iran must be more helpful to its neighbor and stop supporting surrogate militias that are attempting to destabilize the central government. And, he said it's not surprising that there were fewer attacks during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent two-day visit to Baghdad, since it is mainly Iranian-backed Shi'ite military members who have been conducting rocket and other attacks in the capital. "We have no doubt they are still supporting insurgents," Odierno said. Asked if that was the greatest threat to stability in Iraq, he said, "If you ask me what I worry about most, I do worry about that as a long-term threat. And I think we have to, you know, constantly watch it." More broadly, Odierno said he is encouraged at prospects for further progress toward stabilizing Iraq even as the United States reduces its troop levels over the next several months. He said the al-Qaida in Iraq network - which he said in mainly led by foreign fighters - is on the run but still a threat. Odierno, who finished a 15-month tour as day-to-day commander in Iraq in mid-February, said the US military needs to "keep constant pressure on these surrogate networks" that Iran is backing in Iraq and keep talking about them so that people don't forget what Iran is doing. "They have a huge role to play in Iraq as helpful partners in the Middle East and to the Iraqi government," said Odierno. "What they have to stop doing is training surrogates, funding surrogates and supplying weapons to them - which they are still doing today." He added that he has no hard evidence to back the reports that Iran is funding al-Qaida in Iraq. Odierno's comments came as Ahmadinejad wrapped up his visit to Iraq, saying that US power is crippling the region, and emphasizing Iran's growing role as a partner to Iraq. But military officials are more suspicious of Iran's intentions. "I think this is about keeping in my opinion a weak government in Iraq, and I think Iran benefits from that," Odierno said. Odierno has been nominated for promotion to four-star rank and assignment as vice chief of staff of the Army. He is currently commander of the Army's 3rd Corps, based at Fort Hood, Texas. Odierno spoke hopefully of an apparent change of direction by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which has posed some of the biggest challenges to US efforts to stabilize the country. "I think he's trying to move them away from a militia-based organization to one that is more - as it started out to be - helping the poor Shiite community have a role and a vote in what goes on in the government of Iraq," Odierno said. "I think I see him trying to move toward that." He said this is encouraging in the sense that the majority of the Mahdi Army is "becoming more reconcilable" with the central government and its efforts to develop a Sunni-Shiite power sharing arrangement. Rogue elements of the Mahdi Army are being supported by Iran and are now splitting off from al-Sadr's main movement, the general said. "That's actually helpful for us because we now understand who's doing what."