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Secretive force at center of tensions between U.S., Iran

WASHINGTON—A band of religious warriors that Iran's clerical rulers created to spread their country's Islamic Revolution has joined Iran's nuclear program at the center of the rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The Quds Force, a secretive overseas arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan; runs Shiite extremist networks in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Europe; trains and arms Hezbollah and other Shiite radicals in Iran and Lebanon; and funds the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. Now it's arming Iraqi Shiite Muslims with armor-piercing bombs to use against American troops, according to U.S. officials.

Many experts now warn that if the U.S.-Iranian frictions over Iraq and Iran's nuclear program escalate into conflict, Tehran would use the Quds Force to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. and allied targets around the world.

"They are the brains behind those who are pulling the trigger," said one official, who requested anonymity because intelligence on the group is highly classified. "You are never going to see their fingerprints."

Iran denies that it's helping to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and the Bush administration has refused to declassify the intelligence that it says proves the Quds Force is sending weapons to Iraqi militants. As a result, while it's clear that Iran is supporting Shiite groups in Iraq, both the extent and the intent of its meddling there are subjects of debate.

Five Iranian officials detained by U.S. forces in recent raids in Iraq are said to be Quds Force operatives, but some U.S. officials think the force isn't in Iraq to direct attacks on U.S. troops. The Iranians, they think, simply want to ensure that Iraq's Shiites prevail over the minority Sunnis, thereby ensuring peaceful relations with Iran.

The Quds force is well known to the world's intelligence agencies, but much about it remains unknown, including where it fits into Iran's deliberately complex and confusing power structure. One early attempt to diagram the power structure, by a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst in the 1980s, put "God" in the top box.

Although many intelligence services, including those of the United States, Israel and European and Arab nations, have been keeping tabs on its operatives—or at least trying to—for more than 20 years, the unit has been publicly accused of complicity in a terrorist attack only once. That was in the July 18, 1994, suicide bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 151.

The case was based in part on the testimony of Abdolhassem Masbahi, a former senior Iranian intelligence officer who defected to Turkey in 1995. An Argentine judge, acting at the request of special prosecutors, issued arrest warrants in November for former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and seven other Iranian officials, including Ahmad Vahidi, the Quds Force commander at the time of the bombing.

Experts say the force is a highly compartmentalized and disciplined contingent of several thousand men who are trained in espionage, military operations and political analysis, and it reports directly to supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

"It's like taking the CIA, special forces and the State Department and rolling them all into one," said the U.S. official.

"These guys have been around for a very long time," said Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst who's now a terrorism expert at The Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington policy organization. "We know they are nasty, and we know they are capable."

Its mission of exporting the Islamic Revolution has meant confronting Iran's main enemies, the United States and Israel, beginning in Lebanon 25 years ago.

Current and former U.S. officials said Revolutionary Guard members helped plan and organize the Hezbollah suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, which killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. service personnel. Reconnaissance photographs of the Iranian headquarters near the town of Baalbek revealed a mockup of the unfinished defenses around the embassy annex and tire tracks where the bomber had rehearsed his mission.

The force also is believed to have been involved in recruiting and training the Shiite radicals who carried out the 1996 truck-bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and a Saudi.

Only now, however, has the United States confronted Iran over the force's activities.

"No administration wanted to take these people on," charged Robert Baer, a former covert CIA officer who served in the Middle East.

The unit's name, Persian for Jerusalem, reflects the Iranian goal of destroying Israel and liberating Islam's third holiest city. Its hostility toward the United States is reflected in its use of part of the former U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days between 1979 and 1980, U.S. intelligence officials said.

The force was formally constituted in 1990 as the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military organization with its own air, land and sea forces that's separate from the regular Iranian military, whose main mission is protecting the ruling ayatollahs.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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