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Face-off with Iran raises questions about U.S. intentions

WASHINGTON _The Bush administration is escalating its confrontation with Iran, sending an additional aircraft carrier and minesweepers into the Persian Gulf as it accuses the Islamic regime in Tehran of arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq for attacks on American troops.

A new U.S. intelligence estimate on Friday, however, concluded that Iranian and other outside meddling is "not likely" a major cause of the bloodshed in Iraq, and a new McClatchy analysis of U.S. casualties in Iraq found that Sunni Muslim insurgents, not Iranian-backed Shiites, have mounted most—but not all—of the attacks on American forces.

The Bush administration, which made exaggerated or false claims about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to al-Qaida to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq, hasn't provided evidence to back up its charges.

Intelligence officials said the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has used weapons from Iran to kill Americans in Iraq. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confirmed Friday that the administration isn't sure whether Iran's leaders sanctioned the arms shipments to Iraq or whether rogue elements are behind them.

"I don't think that we know the answer to that question," Gates told reporters.

Some experts, citing Bush's order to send more U.S. air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf, worry that President Bush is exaggerating the Iranian role to build a case for attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.

"It would be interesting to know why the (administration's) statements have gotten more bellicose. It would be interesting to know why there are aircraft carriers in the region," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a Senate committee on Wednesday. "We have learned the hard way what happens when this administration decided on a policy without putting its assumptions to the test of legislative scrutiny and informed debate."

Bush and his top aides deny that they've been exaggerating Iran's role in Iraq, saying it should be seen in the context of Tehran's efforts to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf, strengthen Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups and bolster Shiite political power in Lebanon and other Arab countries with large Shiite populations.

They also say the United States has no intention of attacking Iran.

"The president has made clear, the secretary of state has made clear, I've made clear ... we are not planning for a war with Iran," Gates told reporters. "What we are trying to do is, in Iraq, counter what the Iranians are doing to our soldiers, their involvement and activities."

The U.S. government's own data, however, show that Sunni insurgents, not the Shiite militias supported by Iran, have been responsible for most American combat deaths.

According to data provided by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an Internet site that closely tracks military and civilian deaths in Iraq, more than two-fifths of the U.S. combat deaths in 2006 occurred in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, where Iran has virtually no influence.

The proportion of U.S. casualties that occurred in Anbar—44 percent—was higher than it was in 2005, when it was about 36 percent.

"The vast majority of Americans who are being killed are still being killed by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) set by Sunnis," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House expert on Persian Gulf affairs.

Pollack, now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, questioned the White House's rhetorical campaign and military movements aimed at Iran.

"The evidence that I am seeing does not seem to support the level of rhetoric, let alone the military actions" the administration is taking, Pollack said.

Many experts worry that escalating the tensions could increase the danger that a misstep by either side could lead to open conflict in the Persian Gulf, which could send oil prices soaring, strengthen both Shiite and Sunni extremists and threaten pro-Western Arab nations.

"It's a high risk strategy ... and does have the possibility of actually making things worse," warned Gary Sick of Columbia University, a leading expert on Iran who served in the White House under President Jimmy Carter.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration is under growing pressure from Israel and Arab nations to counter Iran's growing assertiveness.

"The administration is between a rock and a hard place here," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking anonymously because the intelligence on Iran is highly classified. "On one hand, they have to convince people here and abroad that this time they're telling the truth and they've got the goods, which won't be easy. And a lot of our friends in the region, like the Saudis and the Israelis and the Lebanese, are nervous and want us to get tough with Iran."

Challenged by Iran to make its evidence public, the administration has postponed briefings on what one U.S. official called "the Iran dossier."

On Friday, the National Intelligence Council, comprising the top U.S. intelligence analysts, released an assessment of the Iraq crisis that said "lethal support" from Iran to Shiite militants "clearly intensifies" the conflict, but isn't a significant factor.

"Iraq's neighbors influence, and are influenced by, events in Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining" sectarian strife, said the analysis, known as a National Intelligence Estimate.

Intelligence officials said they have strong evidence of Iranian support for Iraqi Shiite militias, especially the Madhi Army. The question is how great a role they're playing in the conflict.

"No one sees a problem," said a U.S. defense official who requested anonymity because the issue involves top-secret intelligence.

The weapons include shaped-charge explosives capable of breaching advanced armor, armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades and Katyusha rockets, said the senior U.S. intelligence official.

But Iran's motives remain murky, he said.

"Are the Iranians mucking around in Iraq? You bet," he said. "Do they want to make sure they've got a government in Baghdad that's simpatico instead of another war? Yep. But are they fighting a secret war against the Americans in Iraq? We have no evidence of that."

The fact that some Iranian weaponry is flowing to the Mahdi Army, and that Mahdi Army fighters have attacked Americans, doesn't prove that the Iranians are targeting Americans, said a second U.S. intelligence official, who also agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

Moreover, a third intelligence official said, Iraq is awash in weapons purchased by Saddam's regime and never secured by U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion. Plenty of Iranian weapons are also "floating around" because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps created the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and forces loyal to the Dawa party of U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the official added.

Further compounding the problem, the three U.S. intelligence officials said, is that the Bush administration supports not only Dawa's Maliki, but also two major SCIRI leaders, Abdul Aziz al Hakim and Abdul Adel Mahdi, who are also in the government.

"So what do we do?" said one of the officials. "Accuse the Iranians of supporting the same guys we support? That's awkward."

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(McClatchy correspondents Drew Brown and John Walcott contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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