ST. PAUL - If Iran was behind the deaths of three Minnesota National Guard soldiers, already rocky relations with the United States could become worse, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Sunday from the Middle East.
An Iraqi police official says his department arrested a man with Iranian connections in the attack that killed Spec. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury, Spc. James Wertish, 20, of Olivia and Spec. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove Thursday at their Basra, Iraq, base. A fourth soldier, whom the military has not identified, was hurt.
"If the evidence continues to point in that direction, that is going to make an already complicated relationship with Iran even more problematic," Pawlenty said in a conference call with Minnesota reporters as he ended an unannounced two-day Iraqi visit planned months ago.
Pawlenty would not give details about the attack on the Basra base, citing military officials' request that he be silent on the topic.
The military said the three were killed at 9:15 p.m. Iraqi time Thursday, 1:15 p.m. Minnesota time. Reports from Iraq indicate a rocket killed the Minnesotans.
Those hurt and killed were from a Stillwater-based military police unit.
"We were just a handful of miles from the Iranian boarder," Pawlenty said Sunday from Kuwait.
Pawlenty's Iraqi trip was supposed to be about telling soldiers that Minnesota supports them. But it turned into a sad occasion after the deaths were reported.
Sgt. Joe Roos of the National Guard reported that Pawlenty cut short his planned opening statement when he visited the Basra base on Sunday.
"Normally, at these town hall meetings, we talk about a lot of stuff," Pawlenty said, "from the GI Bill to the Minnesota Vikings. But I want to limit my comments today to letting you know that I'm just so very sorry."
When he met with the military police company, there was one pressing question, Roos reported:
"The soldier was Staff Sgt. Blake Hayden from Woodbury, Minn., squad leader for the military police company's quick reaction force and the direct supervisor of Drevnick, Wertish and Wilcox.
"'Sir, are you going to be able to be at the funerals?'
"The governor did not mince words with his response.
Talking to reporters, the subdued Pawlenty said the late soldiers' colleagues praised the trio as among the best people - not just soldiers - they had known.
The governor also sent a message to the soldiers' families: "We are thankful for their sons and what they represented, the values they represented and their service to their country."
Pawlenty said the state will do what it can to help families through their time of grief.
While overall violence is down from what was common during his 2006 and 2007 Iraqi visits, Pawlenty said the Thursday incident shows that danger remains. He also visited Iraq in 2004.
More than 1,000 Minnesota Guard troops are in Iraq, with the Rosemount-based 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division. The Red Bulls are in charge of both National Guard and active Army troops in half of Iraq. The Stillwater military police unit is part of the Red Bulls.
Pawlenty said this is the first time since World War II that a Guard unit has shouldered such command responsibility. The Red Bulls run an operation of 15,000 troops from their Basra base.
While in Iraq with four other governors, Pawlenty met with military and American civilian leaders including Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Besides Basra, he was in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Other than those closest to the soldiers who died, Pawlenty said that it appears "the morale of the rest of the troops is pretty good."