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Military team looks for proof of Iran’s links with Iraq rebels

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Scotland on Sunday: A team of military specialists has been dispatched to Iraq to compile a comprehensive dossier of evidence that “Iranian elements” have been arming insurgents engaged in a brutal struggle with British forces around Basra. Scotland on Sunday

BRIAN BRADY
WESTMINSTER EDITOR

A TEAM of military specialists has been dispatched to Iraq to compile a comprehensive dossier of evidence that “Iranian elements” have been arming insurgents engaged in a brutal struggle with British forces around Basra.

The Foreign Office last night confirmed that experts were engaged in an intensive operation to back up growing concerns that Iran is “interfering” to deadly effect in efforts to pacify Iraq and restore democracy to the war-torn country.

The insistence that Britain is determined to prove Iran is providing sophisticated equipment to perpetrators of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least eight British soldiers in the past five months is a significant development in the escalating war of words between London and Tehran.

Ministers and military officials also fear that a continuing escalation in the violence against their forces in Iraq could lengthen the British presence in the country at a time when they are faced with further commitments elsewhere in the world.

Diplomatic sources also confirmed last night that an operation in Basra to seize 12 men, including members of the Iraqi police and the chief of the city’s state-run electricity company, was directly related to the wider operation to target supporters of insurgent fighters.

A number of those detained are believed to have been supporters of the rebel Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who oversees the militia that has risen up twice against US and British forces over the past year.

“In the past two months, eight multi-national force soldiers and six coalition members have been killed by terrorists in Basra province,” said Brigadier John Lorimer. “This terrorism must be stopped.”

Scotland on Sunday revealed last month that the British military was convinced Iran was to blame for the sophistication of weapons used against troops in the Basra area.

Tony Blair went public with the suspicions last week, suggesting that the “particular nature of those devices leads us … to Iranian elements” – or to the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Both Hezbollah – itself widely believed to be backed by Iran – and the Tehran government, immediately denied the claims. But British diplomatic sources say they remain the prime suspects – and that the government had now increased efforts to prove their guilt.

The timing of the diplomatic row, a week before Iraqis vote on a referendum on their proposed new constitution, is significant, as the US and Britain are keen to prevent any outside interference in the process.

“It has been clear for the past few months and during the summer that there have been more sophisticated attacks that required technologically advanced equipment and knowledge of how to use it,” a Foreign Office spokesman told Scotland on Sunday last night.

“It is clear from the equipment involved that it is coming from outside Iraq. There are indications that the sort of equipment is similar to that used by Hezbollah, which is known to be trained and equipped by Iran. We are seeking to track down who is involved.

“Whatever information is raised, if there is a suggestion that outside countries are involved, these issues will be raised with the countries concerned.” Scotland on Sunday understands that a team of military intelligence officers has been detailed to mount a forensic investigation into the construction and origins of devices used in the southern ‘British’ zone of Iraq during the past six months.

One senior intelligence source revealed last month that officials had been disturbed by the rapid acceleration in the technological sophistication of the weapons used against British forces patrolling the streets around Basra. The greatest concerns centre around the difficulties securing the 900-mile border with Iran, and controlling contact between Tehran and its Shia Muslim colleagues in southern Iraq.

“They have had foreign nationals, finance and weaponry streaming over the border,” one former military intelligence officer explained.

“They are using explosive devices with incredibly sophisticated trigger mechanisms – basically the support they have had has enabled them to learn in two years what it took Irish republicans 20 years to perfect.”

Blair’s open admission of Britain’s suspicions over Iran’s behaviour was followed by an invitation to talks from his Foreign Secretary.

“We look to the Iranian government to sit down with us, hear what we have to say and take action where appropriate,” said Jack Straw after Blair’s statement, delivered at a press conference alongside the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.

But the accusation was dismissed as a “lie” by counterparts in Tehran. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza-Asefi insisted that “a stable Iraq is in our interests”.

He said: “The British are the cause of instability and crisis in Iraq.” A senior Foreign Office source last night insisted that “any interference in Iraq’s moves towards democracy is unacceptable”.

But the climate of distrust, and the most recent arrests, threaten to destabilise relations in Iraq in advance of the referendum, to be held on Saturday.

The British government is keen to move Iraq closer to democracy, to enable an early start on the withdrawal of the 8,500 UK troops in the country.

The Ministry of Defence is already committed to sending thousands of troops to Afghanistan next year, amid growing concerns the country is on the verge of further unrest.

The recent upsurge in violence in southern Iraq has forced ministers to review plans to begin pulling out as early as next year. Blair last week assured Talabani that British troops would stay in the country “as long as he wants them”. Iraq faced the imminent threat of civil war as it approaches the constitutional referendum, the secretary general of the Arab League warned yesterday.

Diplomats from the league were flying to Iraq this weekend to prepare a conference on reconciliation of the country’s different ethnic groups.

Secretary general Amre Moussa warned that certain interests were promoting tension between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds for their own advantage.

Moussa declined to point the finger of blame at any individual or party, saying that this would merely stoke up pressure even further.

But he said: “The situation is so tense there is a threat looming in the air about civil war that could erupt at any moment, although some people would say that it is already there. We can’t just leave Iraq with the divisions and disagreements and conflicts and shootings. There is a policy to provoke and push communities against each other, and there is another policy that would bring them together, and it is our policy in the Arab League that the time has come for us to talk seriously about bringing them together.”

It was not enough simply to assume that approval of the constitution in the UN-backed October 15 referendum would put Iraq on to the path of democracy and stability, Moussa said.

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