The U.S. will push Iraq to go after Iranian-supplied armed factions responsible for a recent spate of violence against American troops in the country, newly minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday.
On his first trip to Baghdad as the Defense chief, Panetta said the U.S. is "very concerned about Iran and weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq."
Baghdad needs to ramp up its efforts to combat these Iranian-backed Shiite militants who are “making use of these weapons,” Panetta told reporters. “If we're all gonna be partners, they have a responsibility to protect against that kind of attack. It's in the interest of Iraq to provide for their own security.” At the same time, Panetta said the U.S. has the authority to do "whatever is necessary" to defend its troops, including taking direct action against the extremists.
The United States is scheduled to withdraw the remaining American troops currently stationed in Iraq by the end of the year, though recent violence has fueled speculation over whether the Iraqi government will request an extension of U.S. presence. The Iranian-backed militias are launching the heightened campaign of violence to give the impression that they are responsible for the pullout of U.S. troops from the country, a senior U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times.
The U.S. has felt the "reality" of Iranian influence as American casualties continue to escalate, Panetta said. "In June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans," he said.
The remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in the country have come under increased attack in recent weeks ahead of the looming deadline for troop withdrawals. Fourteen American troops were killed in June, the deadliest month of casualties for U.S. forces in three years. During Panetta’s visit, three rockets struck within Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Monday, wounding a woman and three children. A U.S. soldier was killed in southern Iraq on Sunday—the third U.S. casualty so far this month.
"If they [the Iraqis] are to make a proposal with regards to the continuing U.S. presence there, they have to make a formal request that we would obviously consider," Panetta said.