WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Feb. 14, 2007) - An influx of Iranian weapons and munitions into Iraq amounts to a "major force-protection issue," a senior coalition official in Iraq said today.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman, told a group of online journalists that Iranian interference in Iraq, particularly the export of deadly "explosively formed penetrator" (EFP) components and technology, must be made public after diplomatic and military efforts to deter the practice had been unsuccessful.
"We're going to go public, talk about this and acknowledge it," Caldwell said. "We need these actions to stop."
Attributing much of the recent rise in coalition casualties to use of EFPs by Shiite extremist elements, Caldwell said, "We absolutely know that Iran is allowing these precision made EFP components to be made in Iran and smuggled here into Iraq and being used here to kill."
The general highlighted the link between Iran and Iraq's Shiite extremists, noting the concentration of outside weapons in Shiite hands.
"If these were just random black market activities that were going on, we would expect to see these Iranian weapons and munitions found around the country here in Iraq and we don't find that," he said. "What we find is that Shiite extremist groups are the ones that, in fact, we find in possession of these weapons and munitions. That in itself tells us it's not a random black marketing activity, but rather it's a more deliberate, conscious plan."
Iranian involvement in Iraq runs even further into financing, equipping and training of hostile Shiite elements, Caldwell said. He noted that in recent interviews with Iranian forces captured in Iraq, the detainees admitted "weaponry and munitions are being smuggled from Iran into Iraq."
Members of Iran's elite "Quds Force" are known to be operating in Iraq. While U.S. officials have not publicly speculated on whether these forces are rogue elements or acting on behalf of Iran's government, Caldwell referred to comments by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, who said, "At an absolute minimum, they're here in Iraq illegally."
Caldwell similarly avoided speculation on the extent of the relationship between the Iranian government and Shiite Iraqi cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
The present whereabouts of Sadr, who nominally controls the Mahdi Army militia, have been the subject of scrutiny in the Western press. Caldwell acknowledged, "We obviously watch his movements pretty closely."
He said there are indications that Sadr is in Iran now, but declined to speak as to what that information could mean.
Addressing comparisons between Iran's current actions in Iraq and U.S. actions to support indigenous forces in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1970s, Caldwell called the situations a "night and day" difference hinged on the legitimacy of the Iraqi government.
"You've got the United Nations who's put out a United Nations Security Council resolution that has a mandate that allows the coalition forces to be here operating in support of this duly elected government on behalf of the Iraqi people," he said. "So when all of a sudden you get somebody like Iran who starts allowing munitions and weaponry and training of extremist elements in their country to come back in to this country, then really it's a whole different situation than what you see there years ago that occurred in Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, Maj. Marty Weber, an aide to Caldwell, said coalition forces are making progress in mitigating the risk posed by EFPs and more generic improvised explosive devices.
"The IED fight is a real challenge," he said.
"We're working very hard as we come across them to render them safe, so we can exploit them and hopefully start attacking the IED network itself and start dismantling it in some parts and pieces."