Weapons flowing from Iran into Iraq are becoming more lethal and sophisticated, the top U.S. military officer said Thursday as Washington and Baghdad negotiate over whether American troops will remain in the country beyond the end of the year.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the delivery of armor-piercing explosives and airborne homemade bombs to Shiite extremists has increased significantly in recent months, all with the full knowledge of top Iranian government officials.
His comments came as a roadside bomb killed two American soldiers outside the main U.S. military base in Baghdad on Thursday, just days after the close of the deadliest month in Iraq for U.S. troops in two years.
Speaking to the Pentagon Press Association, Mullen said stability in Iraq is vital in the region. But he stopped short of saying the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, coupled with the rising number of Iranian weapons, would make the country a national security risk for the U.S.
And while Mullen would not detail any U.S. proposals for keeping troops in Iraq beyond this year, he said, "There are needs that will continue for some time." He added, however, that "we're not talking forever. (It would be) over the next two or three years or something like that."
The 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of the year under an agreement with Baghdad. But there has been an ongoing expectation that some U.S. forces would have to stay to train and assist the Iraqis as they improve their air defenses and logistics.
The U.S. is offering to keep between 8,500 and 10,000 troops in Iraq, according to U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. But Baghdad has yet to make a formal request, and Iraqi leaders are not expected to decide until September at the earliest.
U.S. officials have been complaining publicly that they need a request from Baghdad soon so they can determine how to move forward with the withdrawal and what would be required for the troops that might remain.
Negotiations with the Iraqis, Mullen said, involve both the number of U.S. troops that would stay, as well as the capabilities they believe they need covered, which also includes gathering and disseminating intelligence. Asked how the discussions have gone, Mullen would only say "it's hard."
"What's my number? My number doesn't make any difference," Mullen said when pressed on how many U.S. troops would stay. "It's what the Iraqi government and really the Iraqi people say is acceptable to them to provide for their own security."
The escalating violence likely will help shape the debate over how many U.S. troops the Obama administration will be willing to leave in Iraq in the face of the American public's growing impatience with the war there and in Afghanistan.
Iran's move to boost the flow of weapons to Shiite extremists, which spiked in 2006-2007, but then declined, has been a deliberate move on Tehran's part, Mullen said.
"They decided in 2008 that they were going to back off," he said. "We're now seeing an increase. Part of it is a belief that they will be able to claim that they had something to do with us leaving. It has nothing to do with us leaving."
The weapons on the increase include armor-piercing explosives known as EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, and the so-called IRAMs, or improvised rocket assisted mortars, which are highly deadly, short-range mortars that can be launched from the back of a truck or other vehicle.
Thursday's bomb in Baghdad, which was detonated near a checkpoint outside Victory Base Camp, was an EFP.