On his first visit to Iraq since becoming Defense secretary this month, Leon Panetta warned the United States will not sit back as Iran provides increasingly lethal weapons that Iraqi militias are using to kill U.S. troops.
"We're very concerned about Iran and the weapons they're providing to extremists in Iraq," Panetta said, on a visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad Monday, the AP's Robert Burns reports.
"We cannot simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen," he said. "This is not something we're going to walk away from. It's something we're going to take on head-on."
The United States will act unilaterally "to go after those threats," Panetta, the former CIA chief and lawmaker, said.
Iran has become increasingly brazen in leaving its fingerprints on weapons provided to Shiite extremist groups in Iraq, the top U.S. civilian and military envoys in Iraq have recently charged.
Fifteen U.S. troops were killed in Iraq in June, nine of them in attacks from Iranian-origin rockets, U.S. officials said, according to the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller.
Weapons "are coming in from Iran, we're certain of that," Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Washington Post last week.
Austin, speaking with Panetta in Baghdad Monday, indicated U.S. actions against Iran arms are mostly defensive in nature, but he declined to elaborate on the operations.
Panetta's comments "seem calculated to influence the Government of Iraq to take action against Iranian-supported special groups... and to influence the government of Iran to cease its apparent encouragement of these attacks," military analyst Michael Eisenstadt, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Envoy.
The problem, Eisenstadt continued, is that "having facilitated attacks that have probably killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq in the last several years, without incurring any form of retaliation in-kind, Iran is not likely to be cowed by U.S. warnings or threats."
Some 46,000 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq. Under the terms of a previously signed U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, they are due to be withdrawn by the end of the year.
However, the Obama administration has repeatedly urged the Iraqi government to consider requesting a smaller follow-on U.S. troop presence in Iraq. The idea would be for these additional troops to help provide stability, continue training Iraqi security forces and assist counter-terrorism operations.
Panetta, 73, displayed some rather undiplomatic impatience in pressing the Baghdad government again Monday to move on the matter.
"Damn it, make a decision," he said as characterized his mounting impatience with Iraqi delays on the issue at a question-answer session with U.S. troops.
Reports last week said the United States is already making provisions to keep some 10,000 troops in Iraq after December should such a request come. But defense experts suggested such reports are premature, since U.S.-Iraq negotiations on a possible follow-on force have not yet begun.