A top U.S. military commander says Iran poses a major threat to regional stability as it continues its nuclear program in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that he believes Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapon, but he does not expect the process to be completed this year.
He said Iran continues to support extremist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and, to a lesser degree, in Afghanistan.
General Petraeus said 2010 will be a "difficult year" for the war in Afghanistan. The general said the Taliban will fight hard to maintain control of key areas, and warned lawmakers not to expect a dramatic reduction in violence.
General Petraeus said this year will see progress against the Taliban, but not without tough fighting and periodic setbacks.
He said the development of the Afghan forces is key to reaching U.S. President Barack Obama's goal of transferring security responsibility to the Afghans by July of next year. He said the U.S. is looking for ways to fill a gap in trainers after NATO allies failed to provide as many as hoped.
The general called Pakistan's recent operations against Taliban and al-Qaida elements "impressive," and he said coordination with U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border has made it more difficult for the militants to move from one country to the other.
On the war in Iraq, General Petraeus noted substantial progress, highlighting the mostly peaceful election earlier this month. The general said his forces in Iraq are on track to reduce their presence by the end of August to 50,000 -- nearly half of current levels. But he warned that the situation in the country is still fragile.
The head of U.S. Central Command also expressed concern about extremists in Yemen. He said al-Qaida is exploiting Yemen's security, economic and social challenges, though he said recent operations by the country's military have improved the situation.
General Petraeus said the al-Qaida group in Yemen is a threat not only to that country and the region, but also to the United States, as demonstrated by the attempted Christmas Day (December 25) bombing of a U.S.-bound airliner, allegedly by a Nigerian man who trained in Yemen.