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Iran at center of debate over why violence drops in Iraq

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New York Sun: In the wake of the release of nine Iranians the U.S. military accused of supporting terrorism, the Bush administration is engaged in a debate over Tehran’s role in the decrease in violence in Iraq. The New York Sun

By ELI LAKE
Staff Reporter of the Sun

WASHINGTON — In the wake of the release of nine Iranians the U.S. military accused of supporting terrorism, the Bush administration is engaged in a debate over Tehran’s role in the decrease in violence in Iraq.

On one side are the civilians in charge of the State Department and the Pentagon, Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Gates, who are arguing that the change in Iraq reflects a strategic decision from Iran.

On the other side are General David Petraeus and his commanders in Iraq, who say the decline in violence reflects not the decisions of the Islamic Republic but rather the success of the military surge aimed in part at Iran’s terrorist and influence network.

If Ms. Rice and Mr. Gates win the policy debate, the current American and Iraqi efforts to disrupt Iranian supply lines into Iraq, detain or kill operatives, and freeze assets for Iran will halt. In their place, the moribund Baghdad negotiations that were suspended over the summer will be revived and the American Embassy will work to extract guarantees from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to end its support for terrorism and sabotage.

Yesterday, the director of communications for the Multinational Force-Iraq, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, said it is too soon to say whether Tehran has made a decision to back off.

“I think it is way too fragile to say what we are seeing on the battlefield is proof that Iran has indeed changed its behavior,” he said. “However, we do look forward to Iran achieving its stated objectives of peaceful and constructive support for Iraq’s long-term security.”

American military spokesmen said last week that they saw a 50% drop in the number of roadside attacks through so-called explosively formed penetrators, the copper disc mines that have claimed the most American casualties in the Iraq war, between July and October. Last month, Iranian leaders promised Prime Minister al-Maliki that Iranian support for armed insurgents would stop, a vow they have kept thus far, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said Monday.

Iranian spokesman yesterday pledged to stop terrorists from trying to infiltrate Iraq at the border. The New York Sun reported in May that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has issued political refugee cards to members of a Kurdistan-based group affiliated with Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, that allow the group unfettered travel between Iran and Iraq.

At the same time, not all the data suggest a change in Iranian behavior. On Sunday, Major-General Rick Lynch told Reuters that his men had seen an increase in the number of Iranian-made bomb components in his area of command, which includes the majority Shiite southern Iraq. General Lynch said he was still chasing some 20 suspects that he identified as agents of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

“The number of EFP attacks are on the decline, but the number of EFP munitions we’re finding has indeed increased,” he said. “We’ve come across weapons caches with large numbers of EFP components all traceable back to Iran based on tool markings.”

Yesterday, Admiral Smith said: “The point of General Lynch’s comments” is “that we are in fact finding larger and larger weapons caches, and inside these cache finds are Iranian-made weapons.”

A State Department official said the release of the nine Iranians was meant as a “baby step” in exchange for “baby steps from the Iranians.” “We’re still looking at whether this is because of the surge or the Iranians made a policy decision in Iraq,” the official, who requested anonymity, said. “But if it’s the latter, we should be able to take yes for the answer.” He added, however, that “when it comes to Iran, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”

In the last two weeks, the message from Washington has been more conciliatory since the White House designated the Revolutionary Guard for financial sanction as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. The Financial Times yesterday published an interview with Admiral William Fallon, the head of the Central Command, the theater of operations that includes Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, as saying America was not preparing a military strike on Iran.

“Getting Iranian behavior to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective,” Admiral Fallon said. “Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which in August urged U.N. member states not to sanction Iran for its enrichment of uranium, said yesterday that Iran made a key concession by releasing documents detailing how to mold uranium metal into a warhead. America has separated its nuclear diplomacy with Iran, which is aimed for now at pressuring the regime to end its enrichment activities, from negotiations with Iran over its support for terrorism in Iraq.

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