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US suspects Iran behind increase in troop deaths in Iraq

Military cites use of more powerful, sophisticated arms

By Ed O’Keefe and Tim Craig
Washington Post / July 1, 2011

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BAGHDAD - American troop deaths in Iraq reached a two-year high in June, and US military officials are blaming Iran for the spike in violence.

Three US soldiers were killed Wednesday in a rocket attack at a US base near Iran, the officials said, bringing the month’s death toll to 15 and marking the bloodiest month since 15 military personnel died here in June 2009, according to iCasualties.org, a website that tracks US military deaths. Fourteen of the deaths were combat-related, the highest since 23 soldiers and Marines were killed in action in June 2008, the site said.

For months, US commanders have said they feared that an uptick in violence would accompany the planned withdrawal of most troops by the end of the year. Military officials in Baghdad and at the Pentagon said the mounting death toll can now be directly attributed to the growing sophistication of the weapons that insurgents and Iranian-backed militia groups are using in their attacks.

Those weapons include powerful rockets, armor-piercing grenades, and jamming-resistant roadside bombs, military officials say.

Officials caution that they do not have evidence that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or his government is ordering Shi’ite militias to strike US forces in Iraq.

But they believe that those groups are being trained and equipped by Iranian Revolutionary Guard special forces.

“All of them receive at least indirect support from elements in Iran,’’ said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, chief spokesman for the US military in Iraq. “Primarily, we are talking about the IRG Quds Force.’’

The new dangers facing troops mark another point in their eight-year engagement in Iraq, underscoring the country’s volatile security situation and the ongoing debate both here and in Washington about whether any American troops should remain in the country past the end of the year.

During much of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, American commanders blamed Sunni-dominated terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq for many of the attacks.

But as the US military adjusted tactics, largely withdrew from Iraqi cities, and boosted technology to limit exposure to roadside bombs and suicide tactics, officials say, it has become far harder for loosely organized Sunni militias to strike out against the roughly 46,000 US troops remaining in Iraq.

Now, Buchanan said, the primary threat to the Americans comes from three Shi’ite militia groups operating in Iraq: the Promised Day Brigade, Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hezbollah. All appear to have been supplied with the weapons and training needed to penetrate US defenses.

In early June, a sophisticated rocket slammed into a joint Iraqi-US military base in eastern Baghdad, killing six American soldiers in the deadliest single attack on forces here in more than two years.

In addition, roadside bombs that were able to resist jamming devices killed four US troops in June.

Last week, an American contractor for the US Agency for International Development was killed when suspected Shi’ite militants attached a bomb to a car he was riding in near a Baghdad university.

On Sunday, two US troops were killed when an apparent armor-piercing grenade was lobbed at their vehicle.

Although the US military did not release specifics of Wednesday’s attack pending notification of next of kin, officials familiar with the assault said the rocket was so powerful that it also wounded more than a dozen soldiers, several critically.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for that attack.

However, Kataib Hezbollah asserted in June that it fired on Camp Loyalty, which Iraqis call Baladiyat base, in an attack that killed six US soldiers in eastern Baghdad.

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