WASHINGTON (AP) - Iran's stepped-up arming of Shiite militiamen in southern Iraq who are targeting American troops may be designed to trigger a "Beirut-like moment" of mass U.S. casualties, the Obama administration's nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress on Tuesday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was asked by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., about a previous statement Dempsey had made in which he expressed concern that Iran might miscalculate the level of U.S. resolve to assist Iraq.
Dempsey said his Iraqi contacts have told him it appears "Iran's activities in southern Iraq are intended to produce some kind of Beirut-like moment and, in so doing, to send a message that they have expelled us from Iraq." He did not specify which Iraqis said this, although he noted that their view is "in some cases supported by intelligence."
Dempsey was alluding to the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service members and drove the U.S. out of Lebanon.
In follow-up questioning on this issue, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Dempsey what Iran should know about prospects for driving the U.S. out of Iraq by inflicting mass casualties.
"It would be a gross miscalculation to believe that we will simply allow that to occur without taking serious consideration of reacting to that," he replied.
The U.S. currently has about 46,000 troops in Iraq; virtually all of them are due to leave by the end of this year, although senior U.S. officials have said they believe Iraq will need U.S. security assistance beyond 2011. Dempsey said he would favor extending the U.S. troop presence, if Iraq asks.
Dempsey, who currently is the Army's chief of staff, fielded questions from the committee on a wide variety of topics, but the predominant issue was the U.S. debt crisis and the prospects for further cuts to the defense budget. Dempsey said he realizes that if he is confirmed by the full Senate - as is widely anticipated - he expects to lead a military that faces "a new fiscal reality."
He said the military needs to contribute to deficit reduction in order to avoid the impression of being isolated from the rest of society.
Dempsey also said he expects cybersecurity to be one of the defining issues of his tenure. And he expressed support for President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 by September 2012.
Obama picked Dempsey to succeed Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as Joint Chiefs chairman. Mullen is due to retire Oct. 1.
Mullen's departure follows the retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month and the pending move of Gen. David Petraeus from commander of international forces in Afghanistan to director of the CIA. Former CIA chief Leon Panetta has taken over for Gates at the Pentagon.