WASHINGTON — The hours of congressional testimony, the speeches and the press conferences this week were all, nominally, about Iraq.
But another, equally explosive question — what to do about Iran — loomed over the presentations by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the American military commander in Iraq, over U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and over U.S. strategy for the Middle East.
Petraeus and Crocker, arguing that there's been progress in stabilizing Iraq since President Bush ordered a troop build-up there last year, fingered Iran's support for Shiite militias in Iraq, which they called "special groups," as the No. 1 threat to Iraq's security.
"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus told the House Armed Services Committee.
Iran also announced this week that it's begun installing 6,000 high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. While U.S. officials cast doubt on the claim by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the announcement underlined Tehran's refusal to abide by U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment.
Concerns also have been growing over the unpredictable consequences of a possible attack on Israel by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. The militant Shiite Muslim group blames the Israelis for a car bombing in Syria that killed one of the group's longtime leaders, and anti-terrorism experts in the U.S., Israel and Western Europe think that some attempt at retaliation is almost inevitable.
The Bush administration has been divided over Iran policy almost since the day the president took office and, according to a variety of officials, it remains so today.
One faction, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and including a sprinkling of officials at the Pentagon, State Department and elsewhere, has argued that before President Bush leaves office in January, the administration should use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and punish Iran for supporting international terrorism and thwarting U.S. aims in Iraq.
Even supporters of that approach, however, acknowledge that their case was badly, perhaps even fatally, undercut by a National Intelligence Estimate last November that found that Iran, while still enriching uranium, had stopped work on nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003.
A second faction, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and much of the uniformed military and the intelligence community, opposes military strikes in favor of continued sanctions, diplomatic pressure and talks with Iran under certain conditions.
This faction appears, for now, to retain the upper hand.
Iranian and U.S. representatives are expected in the coming weeks to hold a new round of security talks in Baghdad, the first since last summer, a State Department official said Thursday.
"That process has been re-energized. ... Everybody has agreed in general that they want to sit down and talk," said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
The hoped-for talks are part of a broader U.S. initiative, now that the Petraeus-Crocker testimony is over, to engage Iraq's neighbors in helping stabilize the country. Such efforts, however, have yielded modest results in the past.
Petraeus and other U.S. officials have accused the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of supplying sophisticated roadside bombs and other lethal equipment to Shiite militias in Iraq. The said the bombs have been used to kill U.S. troops.
Bush on Thursday heightened his rhetorical attacks on Iran for its actions in Iraq.
"The regime in Tehran has a choice to make," Bush said. It can enjoy close ties with its neighbor or continue "to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups, which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran."
"If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners," he said.
Although Bush didn't threaten Iran with any specific consequences, one worried senior State Department official said that he detected a "rhetorical shift" on Iran this week and wondered what was behind it. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bush faces numerous hurdles in trying to thwart Iran's influence in Iraq, however.
The foremost is that U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his Dawa Party have a longstanding relationship with Iran, as does the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest political party in Iraq's parliament.
Iran has covered its bets in Iraq: At times it has seemed to encourage violence and at other times seemed to tamp it down.
Bush neglected to mention in his remarks that the recent cease-fire between the Iraqi security forces and the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr was brokered in part by the commander of the Quds Force, the same unit that the U.S. blames for supporting international terrorist groups and attacks on American soldiers in Iraq.
He said that Iraq is the "convergence point for two of the greatest threats" to the United States: al Qaida and Iran. But he failed to note that al Qaida, a fundamentalist Sunni group, and Iran, run by radical Shiite clerics, are themselves bitter enemies.
Bush's own senior advisers on Iraq stressed this week that there are limits to Iranian influence in Iraq, due to the long history of enmity between the Persian and Arab neighbors, including the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
The latest Iranian maneuvering, they suggested, has awakened Maliki's government to the dangers of getting too close to Iran.
"What we're looking at here are some clear limits on how far the Iranians can press in Iraq before they get a significant backlash from the Iraqis themselves," Crocker said.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008