BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday that weapons supplied by Iran are being used in attacks against American forces in Iraq, part of an escalating campaign of violence ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal by year's end.
"We're seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they've really hurt us," said Panetta, who arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit after a two-day stop in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said 15 U.S. troops were killed in June, the most in any month in two years. More than half of the deaths were caused by rockets known as improvised rocket assisted mortars that U.S. officials say are provided to Shiite militant groups by Iran.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other U.S. officials also have said publicly in recent days that Iran is behind the surge in violence against the 46,000 U.S . troops remaining in Iraq. U.S. officials are stepping up the pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resolve whether he will ask for some American troops to remain beyond the deadline.
By playing up the Iranian threat, U.S. officials may be hoping to spur such a request from Iraq.
Panetta said he would encourage Maliki when they met to decide whether Iraq would request that a contingent of U.S. troops to remain beyond the deadline. U.S. officials have signaled for months that they would look favorably on such a request, noting that Iraq's military remains unprepared to handle the full range of threats the country faces without continuing American training and assistance.
The idea of keeping any U.S. forces remains deeply controversial in Iraq, where Maliki faces pressure from hard-line members of his Shiite-dominated governing coalition not to extend the American presence.
It also would be unpopular with some supporters of President Obama, who had pledged to follow the schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces.