Times Staff Writers

U.S. defense and intelligence officials sought Sunday to bolster the charge that Iran was providing arms to Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq, displaying munitions and weapons fragments that they said constituted evidence that Tehran was contributing to Iraq’s violence.

They also alleged that a group under the command of Iran’s supreme leader was behind the smuggling of weapons across the Iran-Iraq border.

The briefing, held under unusually secretive circumstances, featured three U.S. officials, none of whom would be identified, and two tables laden with what they said were uniquely Iranian military hardware and weapons fragments.


The officials said an Iranian weapon known as an Explosively Formed Penetrator had been responsible for the deaths of about 170 of the 3,400 U.S.-led forces killed in Iraq. The armor-piercing devices are used in roadside bomb attacks, which have increased in the last year, the officials said.

The presentation came as tensions continued to mount between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional aspirations.

With two U.S. warship groups in the Persian Gulf, the allegations raised suspicion that the Bush administration was trying to build a case for war, much as it had used intelligence reports to win support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“That’s how we got into the mess in Iraq,” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said on CBS television. “That’s why some of us supported those resolutions, because of doctored information. So I’m very skeptical based on recent past history about this administration.”

Some experts wondered whether it was possible to discern the intended uses of such weapons in a situation as complex as Iraq’s.

“There is a virtual civil war happening,” said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst who is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “If Iran is passing munitions to Shia militias, it could be more in the context of the ongoing sectarian strife than aimed at the U.S.”

The U.S. officials said they wanted to fend off an alarming new type of weapon that was inflicting an increasing number of casualties among American and Iraqi troops. The presentation was a scaled-back version of one postponed two weeks ago amid a dispute within the administration over the strength of the evidence.

The briefing seemed deliberately limited. The officials appeared to back away from previous U.S. claims that Iran, a mostly Shiite country, was supporting the Sunni Arab insurgents who have by far killed the largest number of U.S. troops.

Instead, the officials alleged that Shiite groups ostensibly loyal to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr were involved in the smuggling and use of the weapons.

Few independent analysts think Iran or any other country is playing a decisive role in the sectarian warfare and insurgent violence engulfing at least eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

But many Western intelligence and Middle East experts think Tehran is pursuing a policy of “managed chaos” in Iraq. They suggest Iran is supporting its Shiite and Kurdish allies, who dominate Iraq’s new government, while contributing to the violence in an effort to keep the U.S. preoccupied.

Within Iraq, some saw the presentation as a defensive maneuver meant to drive a wedge into the increasingly cozy relationship between the Shiite-led governments in Baghdad and Tehran.

“The Iraqi government doesn’t think Iran is the enemy,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker in Baghdad. “The Americans are trying to convince the Iraqis that they’re not just against Iranians because of the nuclear file, but because of what’s happening here in Iraq.”

One Shiite lawmaker said she wondered whether similar presentations would be made suggesting Saudi, Jordanian and Syrian interference in Iraq’s affairs. Young Arab men launch most of the suicide bombings targeting Iraqi civilians.

“This is not solid evidence that these weapons came from the Iranian government,” said Neda Sudani, a Shiite lawmaker loyal to Sadr. “These could be arms brought by smugglers for profit.”

The new allegations may place Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in an increasingly uncomfortable position as he tries to nurture a relationship with Tehran without angering the Bush administration.

Iraq’s blossoming partnership with Iran has included discussions on security and intelligence matters and on offers to train and equip Iraqi forces. Iraq’s interior minister, who works closely with U.S. intelligence and defense officials, met Saturday with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, a former member of the Revolutionary Guard.

Several Iranian officials contacted by phone Sunday evening in Tehran declined to comment on the U.S. presentation. In recent weeks, Iranian officials have accused the Bush administration of unfairly using Iran as a scapegoat for its policy failures in Iraq.

“Iraq’s stability, security and integrity means Iran’s stability, security and integrity,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday at a rally in Tehran marking the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

U.S. officials said the material they presented to about three dozen Iraqi and Western journalists was limited because of concern that advertising the deadliness of the weapons might encourage militants to step up attacks or tip them off so they could change their tactics.

“There’s a gap between what we know and what we can show,” said one of the officials conducting the briefing, a senior defense and intelligence analyst.

The officials showed an array of documentation and military hardware, including three dozen tail fins from 81-millimeter and 60-millimeter mortar shells; rocket-propelled grenades; a chunk of metal about the size of an apple said to have been from an Iranian-made explosive; and shipping containers for mortar rounds.

They also showed identification cards carried by two men arrested last month by U.S. officials in a raid in the northern city of Irbil. The men were agents of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard, the officials said.

Also released were photos of what was identified as Iranian dynamite bearing Persian writing. The explosives allegedly were seized at the Iraqi border by unidentified security officials. The officials also showed photos of Iraqi and American military vehicles with huge holes caused by explosive devices.

The U.S. intelligence analyst said investigations, including information provided by Iranian and Iraqi detainees captured in the last two months, indicated that smugglers were making nighttime runs across the southern half of the border.

The officials said each piece of the displayed hardware could be traced to Iran, though to the untrained eye there were no obvious Iranian markings other than that on the dynamite. Some of the munitions bore Western lettering.

“The begging question of a smoking gun -- of an Iranian standing over an American with a gun -- is never going to happen,” the intelligence analyst said.

The officials said the alleged connection to the Quds Force tied the arms shipments to the top echelons of Iran’s clerical government.

“We’ve been able to determine that this material is coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force,” the intelligence analyst said. “In reality, they report directly to the supreme leader,” referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual, political and military chief.

The U.S. officials said the material, taken together, bolstered the argument that Tehran was contributing to Iraq’s chaos. They said Iran was the only country in the region manufacturing that type of rocket-propelled grenade. They said the mortar shell tail fins could be traced to Iran because of the unique metal work.

The centerpiece of the presentation was an item that looked least like a deadly weapon, the Explosively Formed Penetrator. It resembled a large coffee can packed with a gray, sand-like substance. One of the officials, a military explosives expert, said it was a lethal device first noticed in Iraq in June 2004. Since then, such weapons have killed at least 170 coalition forces and injured more than 600, he said.

Such devices can punch fist-sized holes through armored vehicles, and the number of attacks has nearly doubled in the last year, the explosives expert said. He said the crude-looking devices also had been used in southern Lebanon by “Iranian surrogates,” a reference to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Islamic militant group.

Some analysts said the U.S. presentation could be seen as a general warning to Iran, part of a policy of containment meant to curtail Tehran’s ambitions.

“It’s part of the deterrence game,” said Ken Wise, an analyst at the Dubai Consultancy Research and Media Center, a think tank in the United Arab Emirates. “They’re trying to raise the stakes for Iran both in Iraq and the nuclear weapons side of the argument.”