Updated at 2:58 p.m. ET
The U.S. military is beefing up security around its bases in Iraq in anticipation of Iranian-backed militants looking to score propaganda points by attacking American soldiers leaving the country, the U.S. commander said Tuesday.
Gen. Ray Odierno said the Iranian threat to U.S. forces has increased as Tehran looks to boost its political and economic influence in Iraq in the face of a decreasing U.S. military presence.
"There's a very consistent threat from Iranian surrogates operating in Iraq," and security has been stepped up at some U.S. bases, Odierno told reporters in Baghdad. He added that joint operations with Iraqi forces against suspected Iranian-sponsored insurgents have also been increased, while the scheduled withdrawal proceeds apace.
Though no attacks have yet occurred, said Odierno, there was credible intelligence some Iranian-backed groups were planning strikes on U.S. forces.
Odierno said militants were hoping to make propaganda out of attacks on withdrawing U.S. troops to make it seem as though they were being driven out.
"For years, these groups have been talking about attacking U.S. forces to force them to leave," Odierno said.
The U.S. has been wary of Iran's growing influence in Iraq and the two countries remain at odds over Tehran's nuclear program.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, the Islamic republic has capitalized on centuries-old religious and cultural ties to secure greater leverage in Iraq, becoming its biggest trading partner and an important consultant to the Shiite-led governments.
The U.S. has long argued that Iran is sponsoring Shiite insurgents attacking American troops operating in the country, a charge Iran denies.
While connections between certain groups of Shiite militants in Iraq and the government in Tehran were "always very convoluted," Odierno said that at least some have ties to the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a heavily armed paramilitary force tasked with protecting the clerical regime.
"Whether they are connected to the Iranian government, we can argue about that," Odierno said. "But they are clearly connected to the IRGC."
Violence has fallen significantly in the past few years in Iraq, but insurgents continue to target Iraqi security forces and members of the Sunni community who joined forces with Americans to fight extremists.
On Tuesday, gunmen stormed the house of a local commander of a government-backed anti-al Qaeda militia in Youssifiyah, killing him, his wife and two of his children and his brother, said police and hospital officials in the town 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
In eastern Baghdad, a policeman and a civilian died when roadside bomb detonated near a police patrol. Six people were injured in the attack, police and hospital officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Odierno admitted that militant attacks were still lethal, but maintained that their capabilities had declined dramatically in recent years and Iraqi security forces were now more able to deal with them.
The ability of Iraqi forces to keep the country stable as the U.S. military pulls out is essential to keeping the withdrawal on schedule.
"Our assessment is that Iraqi security forces are capable of maintaining a level of stability necessary for the country to move forward politically and economically," Odierno said. "And based on that assessment we are going to continue to go down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1."
There are currently 77,500 American soldiers in Iraq. All U.S. forces are to leave the country by the end of 2011.