Smuggled weapons and deadly explosives are still coming into Iraq from neighbouring Iran and continue to kill American soldiers, a top U.S. commander said on Thursday.
“There has not been a change. It is still a relatively steady state. That flow from Iran into Iraq is still happening,” Major General Rick Lynch told Reuters in an interview.
The United States accuses its old adversary of supporting militants in Iraq, a charge Tehran denies, and has been applying pressure for it to stop meddling.
The two countries’ ambassadors held rare face-to-face talks in Baghdad on May 29 to discuss security in Iraq. But Lynch said it would be unrealistic to expect changes on the ground within such a short time.
“What I try to do is stick to the facts. And I know that inside of my battle space, there are munitions clearly marked with Iranian markings, and I am losing many of my soldiers to EFPs,” he said, referring to explosively formed penetrators which have been used with deadly effect against U.S. armour.
“It is clear that the EFP technology and munitions is coming from Iran. We have to stop that,” he said.
Lynch has just taken over command of operations of Wasit province in the country’s south east.
It has a 240 km (150 mile) border with Iran, and he is bringing in 3,000 Georgian troops to stem the flow of arms and munitions which make their way through Wasit to Baghdad.
Although the border is long, there are relatively few places where a truck can cross, which makes him confident of success now that the checkpoints will be properly manned.
“Now that we have the surge units on the ground, it gives us the latitude to direct operations that we couldn’t conduct before because we didn’t have the forces available,” he said.
“CLEAR, HOLD, BUILD”
Some 28,000 U.S. reinforcements have been sent to Iraq to aid a security clampdown ordered by President George W. Bush.
Lynch’s soldiers and the Georgian reinforcements are augmenting a light presence of coalition troops in Wasit that includes Poles, Romanians and El Salvadorians.
Top U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will deliver a progress report to the U.S. Congress in September.
Some of the forces under Lynch’s command were among the last of the extra reinforcements to arrive in Iraq, but he was confident that there would be a measurable improvement in the security situation by that time.
“Now that the surge units are in place I think we can make a marked difference in the security situation in Baghdad and the surrounding areas by about the September timeframe,” he said.
He has launched a major push against Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda to the south of Baghdad. Another major operation is underway north of the capital in Diyala province.
“We can conduct these clearance operations against enemy sanctuaries. The element of concern is the ‘hold’ piece of the clear, hold and build,” he said.
Iraqi army and police must keep the peace after U.S. forces have moved on, something they have struggled to do in the past.
“We can do the first part but the Iraqi security forces have to step up to do the hold piece. It is up to the people of Iraq,” said Lynch.