BAGHDAD, Oct 24: America's civilian and military leaders in Iraq linked Iran and Syria with al Qaeda today as forces trying to tear the country apart and prevent the United States from establishing a stable democracy.
The comments from ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George Casey were among the strongest U S officials have levelled against Iraq's two neighbours over alleged support for armed groups behind much of the bloodshed.
Khalilzad depicted the struggle to build a united, democratic Iraq as ''the defining challenge of our era'' and said it would shape the future of West Asia and global security.
''Those forces that constitute the extremist camp including not only al Qaeda but Iran and Syria are at work to keep us and the Iraqis from succeeding,'' Khalilzad told a rare joint news conference with Casey, two weeks before U S Congressional elections.
''They fear Iraq's success. They want to undermine our resolve by imposing costs on us in terms of prolonging the conflict, imposing casualties and creating the perception that Iraq cannot be stabilised,'' Khalilzad said.
Al Qaeda and Iraq's ''foreign rivals'' were trying to tear the Iraqi people apart along sectarian lines, Khalilzad said, naming Iran and Syria as countries that ''cynically support rival groups involved in the violence''.
Iran, which has close religious ties to Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, and Syria, largely Sunni Muslim, both deny supporting armed groups in Iraq.
''PROMISES OF HELP''
Khalilzad called the news conference to answer mounting questions in the United States about U S strategy in Iraq ahead of elections on November 7 that opinion polls suggest could cost President George W. Bush's Republicans control of Congress.
Khalilzad said the United States had asked Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to encourage Sunni insurgent groups to end the violence and join the political process. ''These countries have promised to be helpful,'' he said. Casey called both Syria and Iran ''decidedly unhelpful''.
Violence in Iraq has spiralled this year in a frenzy of sectarian killings that Casey and Khalilzad blamed on al Qaeda, insurgents, rival militias and death squads.
Khalilzad said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, had told him that the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr supported government efforts to disband party militias.
''We will see what happens,'' he added.
Sadr controls the powerful Mehdi Army militia, which Sunni leaders and US officials blame for some of the worst atrocities in the conflict. It has also been involved in fighting among Shi'ites in the southern town of Amara.
Sadr disowns violence in his name but is fiercely opposed to the US occupation and has been seen this year as among the closest of the Iraqi Shi'ite leaders to the Iranian leadership.
Khalilzad and Casey last appeared together at a news conference in Baghdad on June 8 following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Casey said the Zarqawi group had been weakened but remained lethal.
October is already the deadliest month for US forces in Iraq since last November, with 88 killed so far. Casey said 300 Iraqi soldiers and police had also been killed during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which is now ending.