WASHINGTON — The four-star general nominated to be the next Army chief told Congress Thursday that the U.S. should provide whatever defensive aid that Iraq believes it needs beyond 2011, particularly in light of what he called stepped-up Iranian efforts to pressure the U.S. to abandon Iraq.

"I think it's important that we provide them the support they think is necessary," Gen. Ray Odierno told his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Odierno served three tours as a commander in Iraq, the last as the top overall commander from 2008-10.

Later, when pressed on the question of extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Odierno said decisions would not be based solely on Iraq's judgment about what it needs. He said U.S. and Iraqi officials have produced a joint assessment of expected gaps in Iraqi security capabilities beyond 2011.

Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the committee, asked Odierno how important he thought it would be to keep approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of this year, when the last American forces are scheduled to leave under a 2008 agreement with Baghdad.

Odierno was not specific about an extended U.S. troop presence, but he stressed the significance of recent Iranian efforts to arm Shiite extremist groups inside Iraq. Such groups are blamed by American officials for a disconcerting increase in the number of armed attacks on U.S. forces in recent months.

"It is clear that Iran is attempting to influence this decision with the actions they've taken, specifically over the last several months, in continuing to support, fund, train, equip surrogates in southern Iraq and central Iraq, specifically going after the remnants of our U.S. presence inside of Iraq," Odierno said.

The Iran question also was put to Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, who appeared along with Odierno. Winnefeld is the Obama administration's nominee to succeed Marine Gen. James Cartwright as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff next month. Winnefeld said he agreed that the U.S. needs to do something to stop Iran from arming Shiite militiamen in Iraq who are attacking U.S. forces.

"They are testing our patience, to be sure," Winnefeld said.

About 46,000 U.S. troops currently are in Iraq, training and advising Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi government has not decided whether to ask Washington to keep some troops there beyond the end of the year. Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, the committee's chairman, how much longer the U.S. should wait for Iraq to make up its mind, Odierno said "every day (of delay) makes it more difficult" for U.S. planners.

If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Odierno will succeed Gen. Martin Dempsey as Army chief of staff in October. Dempsey has been nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Navy Adm. Mike Mullen retires Oct. 1.

Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP