BAGHDAD — The top U.S. commander in Iraq warned Tuesday that Iranian-supported militants might try to attack U.S. soldiers as they leave the country this summer.
Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters at a news briefing that U.S. forces had boosted security around their bases in response to the danger posed by an Iranian-backed group he claimed had received special training in Iran and had returned to Iraq with Iranian advisers.
"There has been some intelligence of some Iranian surrogates attempting to attack U.S. bases, which we're watching very carefully," Odierno said. "The people getting ready to conduct this attack went back and got special training in Iran and came back. And we knew that experts were sent from Iran into Iraq to help them do this in the last month or so."
The small Shiite extremist group Khitab Hezbollah is believed to be planning these attacks, Odierno said. American commanders believe that Khitab Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy funded and controlled by Iran.
Khitab Hezbollah differs from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, whose armed wing, the Promised Day Brigades, continues to attack U.S. forces; or Asaib al Haq, a Sadrist splinter group that has stopped most of its armed activities because of a deal with the Iraqi government. Both the Mahdi Army and Asaib al Haq enjoy some popular support in Iraq. Although they have ties to Iran, they are considered nominally independent.
The threat comes as U.S. forces shrink from 74,000 troops to 50,000 by the end of August. The U.S. administration has said the drawdown will bring an end to the U.S. military's formal combat mission in Iraq.
Iraqi and American officials worry that neighboring countries are seeking to fill what they see as a vacuum left by the departure of American troops. The last U.S. forces are scheduled to go out of Iraq at the end of 2011, and a major attack now against U.S. forces could be billed as a blow to America's prestige in the Middle East.
Odierno emphasized that U.S. troops had bolstered their security, and he praised joint operations with Iraqi troops to target possible attackers.
"For years, these groups have been talking about (how) they want it to look like they are forcing the U.S. to leave," Odierno said. "I feel they think this could be a huge propaganda tool for them in the future."