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Powell says Iran aids Iraqi rebels

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New York Times: Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that Iran is “providing support” for the insurgency in Iraq but that the extent of its influence over insurgent forces is not clear.
Most of the insurgency, he said, was “self-generating” and drew support from indigenous sources in Iraq. New York Times

Steven R. Weisman

But secretary can’t be sure ‘how much’ and calls insurgency ‘self-generating’

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that Iran is “providing support” for the insurgency in Iraq but that the extent of its influence over insurgent forces is not clear.

Most of the insurgency, he said, was “self-generating” and drew support from indigenous sources in Iraq.

Powell’s comments were made in an interview with Washington Times editors that was made public Friday. He spoke as the United States again tried to press Iran on another front, by seeking approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for referring concerns about the Tehran government’s nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Iranians are involved and are providing support,” Powell said of the Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq. “How much and how influential their support is, I can’t be sure and it’s hard to get a good read on it.”

American officials say that, at a time when they are trying to increase pressure on Iran over nuclear weapons programs, the Tehran government has in effect begun showing that it has other cards to play and that it could increase influence in Iraq to retaliate if the West tried to punish it over nuclear issues.

The level of Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents has been the focus of an internal debate in the Bush administration since last spring, according to administration officials.

During the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq over the summer, Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, charged that Iran had provided weapons and material support to Moktada al-Sadr, leader of the Shiite insurgents in southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Shiites make up most of Iraq’s population.

Administration officials have been saying, however, that they doubted the Iraqi assertions on Iran’s role. They have noted that, while Iran is likely to be giving some limited support to Sadr, Iran would not necessarily want to support a group such as Sadr’s, which also sees itself as a rival to the supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In the Washington Times interview, Powell said the administration was also concerned about support from Syria for Iraqi insurgents, particularly in parts west of Baghdad known as the Sunni Triangle, but that this support as well might not be of decisive importance to the rebels.

“What I am reasonably sure of in my own mind is that what the Iranians are doing, and what might be happening on the Syrian border – troubling, mischievous. But our real problem is a self-generating insurgency within the Sunni Triangle that’s being fed by Zarqawi terrorists.”

He was referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who is described as a leader of the attacks on American and Iraqi forces and civilian targets in the latest surge of violence throughout the country.

American officials have recently begun saying that they have other, more political concerns about the growth of Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran, they say, has started funding medical clinics, hospitals and social welfare centers in Iraq, especially in areas where Allawi’s government and American forces are not in control.

Iran’s aid to these services in Iraq is being seen in Washington as somewhat akin to its support for Hezbollah, the Syrian-based organization that also runs social welfare centers in the Arab world along with militias that carry out attacks on Israeli civilians and has backed attacks on American forces.

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