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TEHRAN’S ROLE IN IRAQ UNCLEAR, U.S. NOW SAYS

Times Staff Writers

U.S. officials from President Bush to a top general in Baghdad said Wednesday that there was no solid evidence that high-ranking officials in Iran had ordered deadly weapons to be sent to Iraq for use against American troops, backing away from claims made by military and intelligence officials in Baghdad this week.

But Bush continued to maintain an aggressive posture toward Tehran, saying elite Iranian Quds Force operatives were supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq.

“What we don’t know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did,” he said.

“What matters is that they’re there,” Bush said, adding, “What’s worse: that the government knew or that the government didn’t know?”

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Bush then issued a threat that hinted at a direct clash with Iranian units.

“When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq,” he said at a late-morning White House news conference, “we will deal with them.”

The Quds Force is a special unit of the Revolutionary Guard, which is a force separate from Iran’s military, created to safeguard and spread the 1979 revolution that established Shiite clerical rule in the country.

Critics have accused the Bush administration in recent days of overstating claims of official Iranian involvement in Iraq’s violence.

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On Sunday, U.S. officials in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity alleged that Iranian officials at the “highest levels” of the government, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were behind the smuggling of a deadly type of explosive device used against U.S. forces.

But during news conferences Wednesday in Washington and Baghdad, Bush and Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, appeared to step back from that claim, just as Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did in interviews this week.

Caldwell characterized the recent statements about Iranian weapons in Iraq as a diplomatic endeavor to persuade Iranians to stop the flow of such weapons.

“We want to tell [the Iranians], ‘You need to stop,’ ” he said. “ ‘We need your assistance.’ ”

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The controversy surrounding the claims revolves around the nature of wartime intelligence work, which often requires making conclusions based on classified information, confidential sources, circumstantial inferences and historical patterns rather than the type of evidence that could prove a court case.

At a presentation Sunday in Baghdad, U.S. officials showed reporters weapons found in Iraq that they said had been made in Iran. They spoke on condition of anonymity and barred reporters from bringing in cameras or recorders. The unusual secrecy, amid several Washington investigations of abuses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, led critics to question the administration’s motives.

U.S. officials removed some of the secrecy Wednesday and allowed photographers to scrutinize the weapons. The arms included rockets with recent date marks that officials said could be traced to munitions factories in Iran, as well as an Explosively Formed Penetrator, a sophisticated roadside bomb that can pierce an armored vehicle.

Officials claimed that the projectiles have been used by Shiite Muslim militias with long-standing ties to Iran. On Sunday they said the penetrators had caused the deaths of about 170 U.S.-led forces in Iraq,

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Also on display Wednesday were identification cards seized from Iranians allegedly linked to the Quds Force. One, belonging to a graying, middle-aged man in military uniform, says he worked for the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guard, which mostly is involved in domestic Iranian security matters.

“We’re not trying to hype this,” Caldwell said.

In Washington, Bush bristled when asked whether he was using such displays to provoke Iran, much as critics say he used intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda that turned out to be flawed.

“To say it is ‘provoking Iran’ is just a wrong way to characterize the commander in chief’s decision to do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm’s way,” the president said.

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“The idea that somehow we’re manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous,” Bush said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “My job is to protect our troops. And when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we’re going to do something about it, pure and simple.”

Some analysts have suggested that even if the weapons did come from Iran, the degree of government involvement and the motivation remain unclear. Iran may have supplied weapons to Shiite militias primarily to arm them against Sunni forces in the nation’s sectarian warfare, they say.

Even the issue of where the weapons were manufactured is cloudy. A U.S. military explosives expert at the news conference in Baghdad acknowledged that there was no forensic evidence or labels linking the canister-shaped weapons to munitions plants in Iran.

Rather, Army Maj. Marty Weber said, the weapons were similar to those that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia used against Israeli forces during Israel’s late-1990s occupation of southern Lebanon.

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The link to Iran was based on “historical knowledge of these types of weapons, having first seen their use by an Iranian surrogate terrorist group in 1998,” Weber said.

The Iranian government has denied that it is sending weapons to Iran to kill U.S. troops or seeking to stir up trouble in Iraq, which is run by longtime Shiite and Kurdish allies.

Asked what assurances he could give about the accuracy of the intelligence on the Iranian explosives, Bush said: “We know they’re there. We know they’re provided by the Quds Force. We know the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. I don’t think we know who picked up the phone and said to the Quds Force, ‘Go do this,’ but we know it’s a vital part of the Iranian government.”

Caldwell appeared to suggest at times during his briefing that the simultaneous presence of Quds Force operatives and the Explosively Formed Penetrators in Iraq indicated that Iranians were involved in the smuggling of the deadly weapons into the country.

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“We have physical evidence of munitions being supplied to extremists,” he said. “We have in custody Quds Force officers who are, at a minimum, here illegally in Iraq.

“There’s no question that Quds Force elements are involved in this,” he said.

daragahi@latimes.com

james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

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Daragahi reported from Baghdad and Gerstenzang from Washington. Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes, Paul Richter and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.


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