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US military officials in Iraq warn of growing Iranian threat

American military officials say the upcoming US withdrawal has emboldened Iranian-backed militias, which they blame for recent deadly attacks and allege are stockpiling weapons.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / July 27, 2011

U.S. soldiers attached to the Golden Lions forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad July 20.

Saad Shalash/Reuters

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Baghdad

As the clock ticks toward full US military withdrawal from Iraq, American officials who want troops to stay longer continue to warn of a growing Iranian threat.

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Some argue that the diminishing US presence is turning Iraq into an even-more contentious regional battlefield, giving rise to a low-grade war between the remaining American forces and what the US says are militias tied directly to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose rule is dependent on Iraqi parties with ties to Iran, appears unable or unwilling to crack down on the most lethal Iranian-back militias, blamed for June attacks that killed the largest number of American forces in two years.

While military officials say Iraqi security forces have continued to fight Shiite militias linked to Iran, the US is increasingly conducting attacks alone – attacks authorized for self-defense under the status of forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad that expires this year.

“We always want to work with the Iraqi security forces … but we’re not going to sit back and get shot at and can’t defend ourselves. So if we can’t have the help or don’t have the help then we will in fact act to defend ourselves,” says US military spokesman Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan.

For example, says General Buchanan, US Apache helicopters fired on Iraqis shooting rockets at the US base at the Basra airport last month.

“They engaged and killed them – that was an act of self defense. It would have been far better for all had the Iraqi Army been able to prevent the attack or respond to it and stop it in action but things like that happen... what we’re not going to do is sit back and watch them shoot at us and wait for the Iraqi army to show up,” he says.

15 American fatalities in June

Rocket, mortar, and roadside bomb attacks in June killed 14 US servicemen and an American civilian contractor. Buchanan says all but two of the fatal attacks were conducted by three major Shiite militias with ties to Iran.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Wednesday said it would be difficult for a new agreement with the US to pass through parliament. He said Iraq was likely to instead sign more limited agreements on the Defense Ministry level for American trainers and advisers to remain in Iraq.

In the oil-rich south – seemingly one of the calmest areas of the country – recent attacks appear to have taken some of the US military by surprise. Some soldiers live in trailers with little of the protection from mortars and rockets that is common in the rest of the country.

US Gen. Martin Dempsey, in Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, said the heightened militia campaign could be the run-up to a huge attack similar to the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut that drove US forces out of Lebanon.

Analysts say the attacks follow an Iranian strategy of trying to exert security, political, and economic influence in Iraq that the US has found difficult to counter.

“The Iranians are good at this and they are continuing to try to counter balance US influence throughout the region,” says John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

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