WASHINGTON (AFP) — The chances of the United States "stumbling" into a confrontation with Iran through skirmishes in Iraq "are very low," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
When asked on CBS television if such a scenario was inevitable the longer US troops stayed in Iraq, he said: "I think the chances of us stumbling into a confrontation with Iran are very low.
"We are concerned about their activities in the south. We are concerned about the weapons that they are sending in -- that they continue to send in to Iraq.
"But I think that the process that's underway is, as I said, headed in the right direction."
US President George W. Bush on Thursday lumped Iran with the Al-Qaeda terrorist group as "two of the greatest threats to America in this new century" and said both hoped for a US defeat in Iraq.
He warned that he would not hesitate to use force if the Islamic republic targets US interests in its strife-torn neighbor, saying it must choose either to live in peace with Iraq or continue arming and funding militants there.
"Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners," Bush said.
Asked if his comments meant he was less concerned about Iran than the president, Gates said he believed as Bush did that Iran had a choice, whether to have a positive or negative relationship with Iraq.
But the defense secretary noted that a recent government offensive against Shiite militias in Basra had changed the situation.
"I think one of the interesting developments of Prime Minister (Nuri al-) Maliki's offensive in Basra is that it has revealed to the Shia particularly in the Iraqi government the level of Iranian malign influence in the south and on their economic heart line through Basra," Gates said.
"So I think what has happened is that the hand of Iran has been exposed in a way that perhaps it had not been before to some of the Iraqi government and frankly I think that's a very positive development."
US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker said Friday he believed Iran's support for militias fighting the Iraqi government may cause a Shiite "backlash", adding: "My sense is the harder they push, the more resistance they encounter."
General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, told Congress Tuesday that Iran was playing a destructive role in Iraq by "training, arming and directing" Shiite militia.
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