Iran appears to be honoring an informal pledge to try to halt the smuggling of explosives and other weapons into Iraq, contributing to a decline in bombings by more than half since March, a senior U.S. general told reporters Thursday.
“We have not seen any recent evidence that weapons continue to come across the border into Iraq,” Maj. Gen. James Simmons said.
“We believe that the initiatives and the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up.”
The number of bomb attacks has dropped from 3,239 in March to 1,560 last month, the lowest level since September 2005. The majority of attacks are now taking place north of Baghdad, from the town of Taji just outside the capital to the provinces of Nineveh and Al Tamim, he said.
Simmons, the deputy commanding general of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, defined attacks as bombs that explode or were found before they detonated.
The reduction coincides with an overall decrease in violence since the start of the Baghdad security plan, which saw an additional 28,500 Americans troops deployed in Iraq.
The Sunni Muslim insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq and splinter groups from Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia are behind many of the continuing attacks, Simmons said.
Iranian officials have denied that their government has played any role in smuggling weapons into Iraq. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly assured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki during an August meeting in Tehran that Iran would crack down on any weapons coming across its border.
The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of providing armor-piercing bombs, also called explosively formed penetrators, and rockets to the Mahdi Army. The armor-piercing bombs, with the ability to punch a hole in a tank, are among the deadliest weapons facing U.S. troops.
Simmons’ comments were among the most upbeat by an American official regarding Iran’s role in Iraq. On Nov. 2, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also noted Iran’s pledge to better police its border but said Washington needed to wait and see its effect.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters last month that rocket and mortar attacks by the Mahdi Army on the capital’s fortified Green Zone had gone down but that it remained unclear what role Iran might have played in that change.
The U.S. military last week released nine Iranians detained in Iraq, including two men the Americans had accused of belonging to the elite Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. In a show of optimism, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he hoped the move would pave the way this month for a fourth meeting of U.S. and Iranian officials regarding Iraqi security.
British forces in the south also reported a reduction in attacks. The senior British commander in southern Iraq told reporters in Baghdad on Thursday that attacks against British security forces in Basra province had fallen to about one-tenth the number they had been before September, when his troops moved from bases in Basra city to the nearby airport.
“The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets,” said Maj. Gen. Graham Binns. Although attacks against British troops have dropped, violence by militias and criminal gangs is still a problem in Basra.
One Western advisor to the Iraqi government, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record, lamented that British and U.S. forces had given up their hands-on role in Basra, saying they now had a poorer understanding of conditions in that port city, which serves as the gateway for Iraqi oil exports.
Britain is scheduled to hand over security responsibility for Basra province to Iraqi authorities in December and plans to halve its troop levels next spring, from 5,000 to 2,500.
On Thursday, the U.S. military reported that an American soldier had been killed and four troops wounded in a bomb attack in Diyala province the day before.
In addition, the military said a soldier died Thursday in San Antonio as a result of injuries sustained last month in Baghdad. The deaths raised to 3,866 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Five Iraqis were killed in a car bombing Thursday in the northern city of Kirkuk, police said. The bomb, which exploded as a Kirkuk police convoy passed by, comes on what once had been the date for a plebiscite on the fate of the city claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.
The Iraqi government is no longer expected to meet its constitutionally mandated deadline for determining the future of Kirkuk, capital of Al Tamim province, and its surrounding region.
In west Baghdad, the principal of a girls’ secondary school in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya was shot dead on her way to work by a man on a motorcycle, according to police and workers from her school. Last week, two teachers were shot dead in Baghdad.
Police said 10 people were killed in fighting between tribes and Al Qaeda in Iraq-linked groups in a district of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Said Rifai, Raheem Salman and Usama Redha contributed to this report.