WASHINGTON – The U.S. suspects Iran is providing weapons and other military support to both sides of the sectarian conflict in Iraq — not just to the Shiites who have historic ties to the Iranians, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq said Friday.
"We're working now to determine whether they are in fact not only providing support to Shiite groups, but also Sunni insurgent groups," said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, referring to the Quds force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Odierno spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters outside Baghdad.
"We don't have any specific proof of that yet, but there's been some indications that that could in fact be the case," he added in a question-and-answer session via satellite video. He did not get more specific about such support.
Odierno was asked why Iran would help the Sunni extremists of Iraq, since both Iran and Iraq are predominantly Shiite.
"I think it's mainly because they want to continue to create chaos in Iraq," he replied. "They do not want this government potentially to succeed. But additionally, I think they want to try to tie down coalition forces here. And it's clear that they are attempting to affect what's going on inside of Iraq on a daily basis."
Odierno also said it was too early to say how long the United States will maintain the higher troop levels in Iraq that President Bush ordered in January as part of his revamped strategy for stabilizing the country. Odierno said he would make his initial recommendation in July or August.
Odierno ticked off a list of indicators of recent progress in stabilizing Iraq, including a drop in sectarian murders in Baghdad, a return of some displaced families to the capital, improvement in the performance of Iraqi soldiers and police, and the capture of more insurgent and extremist group leaders.
But he also acknowledged setbacks, including Thursday's bombing of a bridge in Baghdad and a suicide attack in the Iraqi parliament building.
"It is clear we still have a long way to go to provide stability and security to Iraq," he said.
Despite the attack inside the parliament building, which is situated inside the heavily fortified Green Zone on the Tigris River, Odierno said it will remain the Iraqis' responsibility to provide security for that building.
"It doesn't help them for us to provide that security. They have to do that," he said.
Odierno said it was not yet clear how the suicide bomber managed to get his explosives passed security. An insurgent umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for it on Friday, as the U.S. military revised the death toll sharply downward to one dead. Officials initially reported a death toll of eight.
At the White House, visiting Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters that the government is taking the steps and measures necessary to stop threats inside the Green Zone. He said there are instances where people who have been given permission to enter the Green Zone have misused the privilege.
He said if U.S. troops left Iraq too early, it would be a "great gift" to those responsible for the latest attack within the Green Zone.
"Definitely it will make a vacuum of power in Iraq, which is not desirable by anyone," he said.
In a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Chicago on Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney lambasted the Democratic-controlled Congress for insisting on a war funding bill that includes a timetable for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. He called it an "unwise and perilous endeavor" by the Democrats.
"It is impossible to argue that an unconditional timetable for retreat could serve the security interests of the United States or our friends in the region," Cheney said. "Instead, it sends a message to our enemies that the calendar is their friend, that all they have to do is wait us out — wait for the date certain, and then claim victory the day after."