WASHINGTON - Military officials accused Iran yesterday of continuing to train and arm insurgents in Iraq, while US lawmakers said they were disappointed that Baghdad opened up its doors to the Islamic Republic's top leader.
"I think it's offensive," said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day trip to Iraq this week.
Iraq has "got every right to invite whomever they want. They're sovereign. But we have a right to express an opinion about it," added Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Levin made the remarks as the United States is struggling to combat Iran's growing influence in the region, and senior military commanders say it continues to provide powerful bombs to Shi'ite militias in Iraq.
"We have no doubt they are still supporting insurgents," said Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the former number two military commander in Iraq, at a Pentagon press conference.
Asked whether that was the greatest threat to stability in Iraq, he said: "If you ask me what I worry about most, I do worry about that as a long-term threat. And I think we have to, you know, constantly watch it."
Odierno, who has been nominated for a fourth star and assignment as vice chief of staff of the Army, said it was not surprising that there were fewer attacks during Ahmadinejad's visit to Baghdad, since it is mainly Iranian-backed Shi'ite military personnel who have been conducting rocket and other attacks in the capital.
Admiral William Fallon, the top commander of troops in the Middle East, echoed those remarks in a Senate hearing at which he said Iran was fanning the flames of global terrorism.
While Ahmadinejad has denied charges of harmful meddling in Iraq, "the facts prove otherwise," Fallon told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq marked the first by an Iranian leader since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
During his trip, he insisted US power is crippling the region and portrayed himself as the enduring partner of Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government.
The United States has no diplomatic ties with Iran because it regards the country as a state sponsor of terror. But recognizing its influence on Iraq's stability, officials last year opened limited discussions with Iranian officials by demanding the country stop arming Shi'ite militias.
Fallon called Ahmadinejad's visit a "mixed bag" because it presented an opportunity for Baghdad to push Ahmadinejad directly to stop the flow of weapons and start working with coalition forces.
"From our perspective, we are not going to help resolve the problems inside that country without assistance from outside," he said.
But several lawmakers on the panel said they saw Baghdad's invitation as a grave mistake and said Iran deserves only to be isolated.
"I would hope that others in the administration would express their indignation about this visit and the comments made by that president because they go to the very heart of the enormity of the sacrifices of life and limb that we have suffered in trying to provide Iraq the ability to become a strong and sovereign nation," said Senator John Warner, the committee's number two Republican.