BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday that the U.S. is concerned about Iran providing weapons to Iraq militants and will take unilateral action when needed to deal with the threat.
"We're very concerned about Iran and the weapons they're providing to extremists in Iraq," he told a small group of soldiers on his first visit to Iraq as Pentagon chief. He is there to meet with Iraqi leaders to discuss the possibility of keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011.
"We cannot sit back and simply allow this to continue to happen," he added. "This is not something we're going to walk away from. It's something we're going to take on head-on."
'Bring pressure on Iran'
Panetta said Washington's first effort would be to press the Iraqi government and military to go after Shiite groups responsible for the attacks.
"Secondly, to do what we have to do unilaterally, to be able to go after those threats as well, and we're doing that," he said.
Video: New defense secretary visits war zones (on this page) "And thirdly, to bring pressure on Iran to not engage in this kind of behavior. Because, very frankly, they need to know that our first responsibility is to protect those that are defending our country. And that is something we are going to do."
Underscoring Panetta's comments, three rockets fired from a mainly Shiite neighborhood hit Baghdad's Green Zone during his visit, Iraqi police said. No casualties were reported and Panetta was not in the Green Zone at the time of the rocket strikes.
June was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq since 2008, with 15 killed, according to the U.S. military's tally.
Most of those deaths were the result of Iranian-made rockets and mortars, Reuters reported.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, last week accused Iran of directly supporting extremist Shiite groups that are killing U.S. troops in Iraq and said any agreement to keep American forces there beyond the end of the year would have to address the problem.
During his visit, Panetta will huddle with the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Baghdad before meeting with Iraqi leaders.Story: US defers millions in Pakistani military aid
Panetta is meeting separately with Army Gen. Lloyd Austin at his headquarters outside Baghdad and with Ambassador James Jeffrey. Later, he is scheduled to talk with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
The Obama administration believes Iraq needs a slimmed-down U.S. military presence beyond 2011, when virtually all U.S. troops are scheduled to depart. Many Iraqi leaders agree, but they've been unwilling to make a formal request.
There are now 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.