By Andrew Gray
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of armor-piercing bombs in Iraq that the United States says have been provided by Iran has declined in the past few months, a senior U.S. commander said on Thursday.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. top commander in Iraq for day-to-day operations, said it was too soon to say whether the drop meant Iran had cut back on smuggling arms into Iraq.
Washington accuses Iran of supplying so-called explosively formed penetrators or projectiles (EFPs), a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb, to extremists in Iraq, mainly Shi'ite militias. Iran denies fueling violence in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was sure Iran's elite Qods force knew about the weapons smuggling and believed top Iranian leaders including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were probably aware of it too.
He said he understood that, behind the scenes, the Iranians had given assurances to Iraq that the flow of arms would stop.
"I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and see," Gates said.
With EFP attacks killing U.S. troops, Iran's role in Iraq has added to tension between the U.S. and Iranian governments, which are also at odds over Iran's nuclear program.
"Although we still have, in my mind, way too many explosively formed projectiles, in the last few months that has been on a downward trend," said Odierno, briefing reporters at the Pentagon by videolink from Iraq.
Odierno, the commander of Multi National Corps Iraq, said his force had recorded 53 EFP incidents in October -- 30 explosions and 23 devices found before they had detonated.
The total in September was 52, in August it was 78 and in July it was a record high 99, Odierno said.
He said the current level was still higher than in January, February and March of this year.
Asked at a separate Pentagon news conference if he believed the Iranian government was actively funneling weapons into Iraq, Gates said: "I believe that certainly the leadership of the Qods force is aware of this. Whether Khamenei is aware, I think you'd have to say ... 'probably'."
He added: "But I haven't seen anything that is definitive along those lines. My guess is that the highest levels are aware."
Odierno said it was hard to draw conclusions about any change in Iranian activity yet because, when his troops discovered a cache of EFP components, it was not always clear when they had been brought into the country.
He said one of the largest EFP caches had been discovered just a week ago but the U.S. military's initial assessment was that it may have been brought into the country in January.
"They might have slowed the rate of sending EFPs in, I just can't tell you right now because it's too soon. I think in a couple more months we'll be able to give you a better idea of that," Odierno said.