BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that weapons supplied by Iran are being used in attacks against American forces in Iraq, part of an escalating campaign of violence ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal by year-end.
"We're seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they've really hurt us," said Panetta, who arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit after a two-day stop in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said 15 U.S. troops were killed in June, the most in any month in two years. A U.S. service member was killed Sunday in southern Iraq. More than half of the deaths were caused by rockets that U.S. officials say are provided to Shiite militant groups by Iran.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other U.S. officials also have said in recent days that Iran is behind the surge in violence against the 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. officials are stepping up the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resolve whether he will ask for some U.S. troops to remain beyond the deadline. By playing up the Iranian threat, U.S. officials may be hoping to spur such a request from Iraq.
Panetta said he would encourage Maliki when they meet today to decide whether Iraq would request that a contingent of U.S. troops remain in Iraq beyond the deadline. U.S. officials have signaled for months that they would look favorably on such a request, noting that Iraq's military remains unprepared to handle the full range of threats the country faces without continuing U.S. training and assistance.
The idea of keeping any U.S. forces remains deeply controversial in Iraq, where Maliki faces pressure from hard-line members of his Shiite-dominated governing coalition not to extend the American presence.
With anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement in Maliki's government, it complicates the ability of Iraqi forces to go after all the hard-line Shiite groups because Sadr's militia, which opposes the American presence, has political backing.
Extending the stay of U.S. troops also would be unpopular with some supporters of President Barack Obama, who had pledged to follow the schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces.
U.S. officials have declined to say publicly whether they favor keeping troops in Iraq, though privately some administration officials said that the White House had decided it could keep a force of as many as 10,000.
Asked Sunday whether he supported keeping forces in Iraq, Panetta replied: "I think it's really dependent on the Iraqis. If they make the request, I do believe we ought to seriously consider it."
Panetta's four-day swing through Afghanistan and Iraq is his first overseas trip since taking over the Pentagon this month.