The U.S. military said Sunday that attacks in Iraq with Iranian-made bombs have fallen off in recent days after a sharp but brief increase earlier in the month, and that the overall flow of weaponry from Iran has dropped.
Meanwhile, a suicide bombing killed six people in western Iraq, the second such strike in as many days in Anbar province, where U.S.-backed Sunni tribes were said to have routed al-Qaida in Iraq last year. The attack near the city of Fallujah missed its target: a local tribal leader who is organizing resistance to the terror group.
The Iranian armor-piercing bombs are a threat on a very different front for the Americans. The bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, have killed hundreds of American soldiers.
U.S. military officials have been saying for months that Iran, Iraq's Shiite neighbor to the east, has been supplying EFPs to Shiite militias in Iraq, despite strong denials by Tehran.
"The number of signature weapons that had come from Iran and had been used against coalition and Iraqi forces are down dramatically except for this short uptick in the EFPs in the early part of January," military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith told a news conference.
His remarks came a week after the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said EFP attacks had risen by a factor of two or three recently.
"It's uncertain again what is happening in Iran that's leading to that occurrence," Smith said. He added, however, that "we don't think that the level of training has been reduced at all. We don't believe that the level of financing has been reduced."
Smith said the U.S. is trying to understand the various ways in which Iran exerts influence inside Iraq, including training of and financial support to militias as well as the smuggling of weapons.
"All these are very critical questions that we need to understand ourselves," he said.
Smith's comments underscored the difficulties for the United States in determining the extent to which Iran's ruling clergy is influencing events in Iraq. The U.S. military has never made clear whether it believes the top Iranian leadership was behind the supply of the deadly EFPs. Most of Iraq's top Shiite politicians had lived in Iran for years and continue to maintain close ties with Tehran.
Anbar leader targeted
In Sunday's bombing in Anbar province, meanwhile, the bomber detonated explosives in his belt after four guards stopped him at the checkpoint leading to the sheik's farm near Fallujah. The attack killed the four guards and two civilians and injured four people, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
The sheik, Aeifan al-Issawi, is a leading member of the Anbar Awakening Council.
The attack came one day after three suicide bombers targeted a police station in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar and a former Sunni insurgent stronghold. Guards killed one attacker, but two others detonated their explosives at the entrance, killing at least five officers, authorities said.
The U.S. military has credited the emergence of the councils, mostly Sunni citizens' groups that have turned against the terror network, with playing a major part in the decline in violence nationwide over the past six months. Such groups, backed by the Americans, have also managed to expel al-Qaida from much of Anbar, a largely desert province in western Iraq.
Smith said al-Qaida fighters remain in the eastern section of Anbar.
Al-Qaida still strong in Mosul
He said the militants are also concentrated northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, in western areas of Kirkuk province, in the northern city of Mosul and "in small numbers to the south of Baghdad." Mosul was the only major urban center in which he said al-Qaida remains a force.
"Mosul will continue to be a center of influence for, a center of gravity for al-Qaida because of its key network of facilitation — both financing and foreign fighters," Smith said. "The flow to Mosul is critical for al-Qaida in Iraq."
Nevertheless, the organization's "leadership and much of its rank and file are on the run," he said.
"As they push forward out of the major cities," he said, "a greatest handicap to al-Qaida is beginning to lose its main influence in population centers. Its major source of funding dries up, because it no longer can intimidate and extort funds from businesses. Kidnappings and extortion become less profitable, because you are in more rural areas."
In that sense, "al-Qaida in Iraq is having a very difficult time financing and maintaining its operational base," he said. "And if they are on the run, they are less likely to be doing planning against civilian targets."