The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday that Iran still is training and equipping Iraqi insurgents but is shifting its focus to influence the upcoming Iraqi elections and exerting “soft power” over its majority-Shiite neighbor.
Iranian meddling “is more targeted now than it has ever been,” Gen. Ray Odierno said following meetings with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. “They are focused on their attempt to influence the national elections that will come up. They will be very focused on trying to support a government that will be more friendly to Iran.”
Mr. Gates was getting a firsthand look at U.S.-Iraqi cooperation following the formal handover of control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi security forces. He met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad over Iraqi requests for more military hardware, including state-of-the-art fighter jets.
The timetable for withdrawal of approximately 130,000 U.S. forces is keyed to the national election calendar, with most combat forces remaining through August 2010.
Gen. Odierno said he believed the Iranians “have done a reassessment” following Iraqi adoption of a security pact with the United States late last year. Iran opposed the pact, which would leave U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011, and urged Iraqis to refuse it as a point of national honor.
Mr. Gates expressed satisfaction with the pace of U.S. disengagement. “Gen. Odierno and I are confident the Iraqi forces are up to the task of securing these urban areas and soon their entire nation, but we stand ready to assist if called upon,” he said.
Mr. Gates sidestepped questions about whether American forces might stay beyond their 2012 departure deadline.
Mr. al-Maliki suggested last week that if Iraq needs more security help, it might ask for an extension of the U.S. military’s commitment.
“What happens beyond 2011 is a subject best left to the end of 2010 or 2011 itself,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. al-Maliki has given Mr. Gates a shopping list of U.S.-made military equipment he wants to acquire, including marquee fighter planes. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Mr. Gates and Mr. al-Maliki discussed equipment sales again Tuesday.
“They also want to give Iraq part of what they already have in Iraq as a form of aid to arm the Iraqi army,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said, and would “facilitate payment installments.”
Iraq wants to buy more F-16s or other fighters than U.S. officials think it can afford, and Gen. Odierno said Iraq needs better air defenses faster than new F-16s could be delivered.
Iraq also is expected to consider French- or Russian-made planes.
“We’re looking for creative solutions” that might include the “loan” of decommissioned U.S. planes, Gen. Odierno said.
A special U.S. Air Force assessment group will be in Iraq soon to help figure out a solution, Gen. Odierno said. Without more equipment and help, Iraq will not be able to defend its own air space when U.S. forces pull out completely in 2011, Gen. Odierno said.
U.S. military officials in Iraq downplayed what they called minor misunderstandings and hitches since the handover, which brought an end to solo U.S. combat patrols inside turbulent cities such as Baghdad and Mosul.
Gen. Odierno said that, after a few early problems, he ordered an enormous video conference involving about 500 U.S. and Iraqi officers to go over the new rules. Problems dropped off sharply after the session in early July, he said.
Mr. Gates met earlier Tuesday with U.S. soldiers serving in a model unit organized to help and advise Iraqis instead of leading the fight themselves. The Iraqi general in charge of his half of a joint military base in Talil asked Mr. Gates for more surveillance equipment to keep an eye on the nearby Iranian border.
Mr. Gates also made a point Tuesday of saying that the United States is “ready to help resolve disputes over boundaries and hydrocarbons,” a reference to widening tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Gen. Odierno called the Arab-Kurd rift his No. 1 security worry.
Mr. Gates is expected to visit Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday. Kurdish leaders are squabbling with Iraq’s central government over oil-rich territory.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.