New York Times: The United States has gathered its most detailed evidence so far of Iranian involvement in training and arming fighters in Iraq, officials say, but significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement and the threat it poses to American and Iraqi forces.
The New York Times
By MARK MAZZETTI, STEVEN LEE MYERS and THOM SHANKER
Published: April 26, 2008
This article is by Mark Mazzetti, Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker.
WASHINGTON — The United States has gathered its most detailed evidence so far of Iranian involvement in training and arming fighters in Iraq, officials say, but significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement and the threat it poses to American and Iraqi forces.
Some intelligence and administration officials said Iran seemed to have carefully calibrated its involvement in Iraq over the last year, in contrast to what President Bush and other American officials have publicly portrayed as an intensified Iranian role.
It remains difficult to draw firm conclusions about the ebb and flow of Iranian arms into Iraq, and the Bush administration has not produced its most recent evidence.
But interviews with more than two dozen military, intelligence and administration officials showed that while shipments of arms had continued in recent months despite an official Iranian pledge to stop the weapons flow, they had not necessarily increased.
Iran, the officials said, has shifted tactics to distance itself from a direct role in Iraq since the American military captured 20 Iranian operatives inside Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007. Ten of those Iranians remain in American custody.
Since then, Iran seems to have focused instead on training Iraqi Shiite fighters inside Iran, though the exact number remains unclear. Some officials said only handfuls of fighters at a time had recently trained in Iran. At the same time, Iran has sought to retain political and economic influence over a variety of Shiite factions, not just the most extremist militias, known as “special groups.”
“They don’t want to be identified with activities that might be seen by the international community as illegitimate,” a senior official familiar with the intelligence about Iran said in an interview.
Iran has sought to spread its influence inside Iraq not only by its support to militias, officials said, but also through legitimate economic assistance, in particular across the oil-rich Shiite south.
The Iranians also support a number of Shiite parties and militias — including providing weapons to militias fighting the Shiite-led government in Baghdad as well as to militias supporting that government.
For weeks, Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the top American officials in Iraq have portrayed Iran as a significant and growing threat to the American war effort in Iraq.
In particular, they have cited an intensified barrage of Iranian-made rockets hitting the Green Zone in Baghdad — including attacks during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — that have killed Americans and Iraqis.
None of the officials interviewed disputed the notion that Iran sought to undermine American interests in Iraq, but in recent weeks the administration has sought to emphasize the threat by citing new evidence. The interrogations of four Iraqi Shiite militia commanders, for example, have provided new details about the extent of training conducted by the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, officials said.
Still, the officials offered an assessment of Iranian involvement that was more complicated and nuanced than public statements by Mr. Bush and other officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who said at a news conference this week that “what Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen inside Iraq” by providing training and weapons to Shiite fighters.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Bush cited Iran as a primary justification in his announcement that he would halt further withdrawals of American troops in Iraq after the level reaches 140,000 this summer. He said an American withdrawal “would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.”
At the White House, the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies and the military headquarters in Baghdad, officials declined to detail publicly the extent of Iran’s support for fighters in Iraq, referring instead only in broad terms to training, equipping and financing Shiite militias.
But in the wake of his briefings to Congress on April 8 and 9, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander, ordered his subordinates to prepare a public dossier on Iranian involvement as part of the administration’s efforts to expose Iran’s covert activities and sustain support for the war, which is increasingly unpopular at home.
On Capitol Hill, General Petraeus said Iranian-backed militias could “pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.”
Publication of the dossier — which includes pages of charts and photographs of seized Iranian-made weapons — has been widely expected but has now been delayed while the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, confronts Iran diplomatically with new evidence of Iranian assistance to Shiite militias, one of the officials said.
The administration’s focus on Iran has raised alarms among the war’s staunchest critics, who accuse the White House of overstating the threat and laying the groundwork for military action against Iran.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California who has called for opening talks with Iran, said that while she believed that there was evidence that Iran was aiding Shiite militias, she worried about the tenor of the administration’s latest warnings.
“This is not a new thing,” she said of Iran’s involvement. “Why all of a sudden do the sabers start to rattle?”
The administration has, in fact, discussed whether to attack training camps, safe houses and weapons storehouses inside Iran that intelligence reports say are being used by the Quds Force to train fighters, according to two senior administration officials. Like most of those interviewed for this article, they spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence assessments and potential military operations.
For now, however, the United States has decided that military strikes in Iran would be untenable and has concentrated on trying to disrupt the routes used to smuggle weapons and fighters across the border, and on diplomatic and financial pressure, those and other officials said.
“The focus right now clearly is on dealing with the problem inside Iraq,” Mr. Gates said in an interview.
Much of the new evidence of Iranian activity in Iraq emerged during the Iraqi-led operation last month to seize control of Iraq’s second largest city, Basra. A senior administration official described the fighting in Basra as “a clarifying moment” for the Iraqis, as well as the Americans, about the extent of Iran’s involvement.
The operation in Basra and fighting against Shiite militias that has spread to the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad have resulted in the capture of significant caches of weapons, including hundreds of rockets and materials to build the bombs designed to puncture armored vehicles, which kill most American troops, the officials said.
The caches, the officials said, have given American commanders a clearer picture of how Iranian weapons have entered Iraq and filtered to various militias and criminal groups throughout the country.
“Much of the Iranian-sponsored arms flow through southern Iraq and are used elsewhere in the country — certainly here in the ongoing Sadr City fight,” a senior military officer in Baghdad said.
Many of the weapons included serial numbers or packaging materials indicating that they had been made in Iran and in 2008, the officials said. That would contradict Iranian pledges last year to Mr. Maliki that it would stanch the flow of weapons and fighters crossing the border.
Even so, the amount of weaponry does not appear to have increased.
“I would argue that in fact, that it has been consistent with where it was some time ago — I couldn’t tell you whether it was 12 months ago — but essentially, that that support continues,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon Friday of Iranian involvement. “And it’s not just weapons. They continue to train Iraqis in Iran to come back and fight Americans and the coalition.”
The dossier being prepared by General Petraeus’s staff also details the interrogations of four captured Iraqi Shiite militia commanders who had received training in Iran, a senior official said. Those commanders, among 16 Shiite commanders captured from last fall to the beginning of the fighting in Basra, have provided the American military its most extensive understanding of Iran’s training of Iraqi fighters, the officials said.
The official said Iran’s Quds Force had developed a formal and sophisticated training program that included five courses on tactics, leadership, training, commando operations and weapons and explosives. Graduates of the training program are expected to return to Iraq and train other Iraqis, the officials said.
“We have very little intelligence collection on actual numbers crossing the border,” a senior official familiar with the intelligence reports on Iran said in an interview.
The United States has identified an unspecified number of Quds camps, warehouses and safe houses near the border with Iraq, according to other officials. Those sites are dispersed in Iranian cities, making them difficult to strike without risking killing civilians, the officials said.
In January, the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions against Iranian officials suspected of aiding Shiite militias in Iran. They included Brig. Gen. Ahmed Foruzandeh, commander of the Quds Force Ramazan Corps, who was identified as the organizer of the training in Iran, and Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, an Iraqi based in Iran who moved fighters across the border for training, as well as weapons.
A report by the Congressional Research Service this month said that the fighting in Basra — which ended after Iran took credit for brokering a cease-fire — “cast significant doubt on the effectiveness of the U.S. counter-measures” against the Iranian efforts.
There is evidence, officials said, that Iran may not have control over the various Shiite groups it had armed. According to a senior American official, Iran has at times been angered when Iranian weapons were used for intra-Shiite fighting, rather than for killing Americans.
“Iran has hedged its bets,” said Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, who has written extensively about Iran’s role in Iraq. “It doesn’t know which Shiite faction is going to come out on top.”