WASHINGTON (AP) - The four-star general nominated to be the next Army chief told Congress Thursday that the U.S. should provide whatever defense assistance that Iraq believes it needs beyond 2011, particularly in light of what he called stepped-up Iranian efforts to pressure the U.S. to abandon Iraq.
"I think it's important that we provide them the support they think is necessary," Gen. Ray Odierno told his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Odierno served three tours as a commander in Iraq, the last as the top overall commander from 2008-10.
Later, when pressed on the question of extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Odierno said decisions would not be based solely on Iraq's judgment about what it needs. He said U.S. and Iraqi officials have produced a joint assessment of expected gaps in Iraqi security capabilities beyond 2011.
Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Odierno how important he thought it would be to keep approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of this year, when the last American forces are scheduled to depart under a 2008 agreement with Baghdad.
Odierno was not specific about an extended U.S. troop presence, but he stressed the significance of recent Iranian efforts to arm Shiite extremist groups inside Iraq, who are blamed by American officials for a disconcerting increase in the number of armed attacks on U.S. forces this summer.
"It is clear that Iran is attempting to influence this decision with the actions they've taken, specifically over the last several months, in continuing to support, fund, train, equip surrogates in southern Iraq and central Iraq, specifically going after the remnants of our U.S. presence inside of Iraq," Odierno said.
The Iran question also was put to Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, who appeared along with Odierno. Winnefeld is the Obama administration's nominee to succeed Marine Gen. James Cartwright as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next month. Winnefeld said he agreed that the U.S. needs to do something to stop Iran from arming Shiite militiamen in Iraq who are attacking U.S. forces.
"They are testing our patience, to be sure," Winnefeld said.