'ROGUE' SHI'ITE MILITIAS USING IRANIAN BOMBS
By Sharon Behn
February 18, 2007
Lethal Iranian bomb technology spotlighted by U.S. officials in Iraq last week is being used by rogue elements of Shi'ite militias that are not under any kind of central command, the U.S. military says.
The evidence presented at a briefing in Baghdad last week further confuses an enemy landscape in which death is as likely to come at the hands of government-allied Shi'ite militias as from disgruntled former Ba'athist extremists and their al-Qaeda allies.
U.S. military officials think members of Shi'ite militias -- most of which have links with both Iran and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government -- are receiving and using the "explosively formed penetrators" (EFPs), or shaped bomb charges. Officials say the EFPs have killed about 170 coalition troops in the past two years -- many of those in recent months.
"Our intelligence has assessed that they are Shia rogue elements of illegal armed groups," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver told the Washington Times in an e-mail interview from Baghdad.
"The primary user is a radical splinter element within Jaysh al-Mahdi that has more than likely been perpetrating a majority of the attacks," he said.
Jaysh al-Mahdi is the formal name for the Mahdi's Army militia, the armed following of the radical Shi'ite cleric Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr. The sheik's political party has 30 seats in parliament, and he is a major political backer of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The other principal Shi'ite militia is the Badr Brigade, linked to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is a major partner in the ruling coalition.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Thursday that Sheik al-Sadr had ordered the heads of his Mahdi's Army militia to leave Iraq, the Reuters news agency reported from Baghdad.
"I think many of his top Mahdi Army officials have been ordered to leave Iraq to make the mission of the security forces easier," said a statement issued in the president's name by his office.
According to a document purportedly smuggled out of the prime minister's office, Mr. al-Maliki last month advised Shi'ite militia leaders to retreat to Iran and southern Iraq until the current U.S.-led security push is over.
The U.S. Embassy told the *Times* that the Iraqi government had declared the document a fake.
Tom Donnelly, a defense and security-policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Sheik al-Sadr is "both inside and outside the tent, and sometimes he is a useful ally and sometimes a hated enemy of the prime minister."
Sunni insurgents and disgruntled former Ba'athists, sometimes working with al-Qaeda in Iraq, have long been blamed for most of the attacks on U.S. forces as well as waves of spectacular suicide attacks that have killed thousands of Shi'ites.
Bruce Reidel, senior fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, said that roughly 90 percent of the anti-U.S. action to date had been from Sunni insurgents, but evidence pointed to a recent increase in Shi'ite attacks.
"The al-Qaeda types hate us, but they also hate the Shi'ites. Sometimes other Sunni traditional clans and sheiks are enemies, but sometimes we are their only protectors from Shi'ite reprisals," Mr. Donnelly said.
Col. Garver said the United States had seen "crude attempts" by other illegal armed groups and al Qaeda to copy the Iranian EFP technology, but that the resulting weapons were "not nearly as precise or lethal."
In addition to killing more than 170 coalition troops, the Iranian technology has wounded more than 620 since 2004, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday.
IRAN FLAP EXPOSES PUBLIC SKEPTICISM OF U.S. INTELLIGENCE, INTENTIONS
By Jim Mannion
February 18, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Unfounded intelligence claims that paved the way for war in Iraq blew back like a ghost last week to haunt U.S. charges that Iran is arming Iraqi extremists.
President George W. Bush and his top aides had to admit by week's end that they did not know whether Iran's leaders knew that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was supplying Shiite militias with sophisticated bombs and training.
And "for the umpteenth time," as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, they denied that the United States was trying to prepare the ground for military action in Iraq.
But the flap exposed how deep public suspicion of U.S. intelligence claims runs nearly four years after the United States went to war with Iraq on the strength of erroneous intelligence that it had weapons of mass destruction.
"I think this controversy is traceable to one big problem," said Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a private Washington research group.
"The US intelligence community does not have an adequate network of agents in Iraq or Iran. Because of that, everything is guesswork," he said.
"We accumulate a lot of disconnected details, and we try to form a pattern out of those details, but we never have that final definitive piece of intelligence that proves the connection," he said.
Officials said U.S. intelligence spent weeks vetting the accuracy of the information before it was briefed to reporters in Baghdad on Sunday.
Reporters were shown examples of weapons, including an armor-piercing bomb known as an "explosively formed penetrator" or EFP, that the U.S. military said are being supplied to extremists by Iran.
Briefing slides contained photographs of EFP caches, passive infrared triggers, blocks of TNT and a blasting cap, mortar rounds, a man-portable surface-to-air missile, and rocket-propelled grenades -- all allegedly made in Iran.
It said Iranians arrested in a recent raid in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil were members of the Iranian Republican Guards, and that its paramilitary Qods Force was providing advice, training and weapons to extremist groups.
The briefing slides cited markings on some of the weapons that indicated they were Iranian-made.
Gates, a former CIA director, told reporters that he had insisted on factual statements with no adjectives or adverbs, only declarative sentences that "make it exactly clear what we know and what we don't know."
The reason, he indicated, was because he expected there would be doubts about the intelligence.
"I mean, we're sensitive to that skepticism," he said Thursday.
"And it's one of the reasons why we were so concerned that the briefing on these materiels be factual and be able to be substantiated by evidence, so it wasn't hypothesis, it wasn't assumption, it wasn't assessment."
But an unidentified briefer apparently went further and was reported to have said the support was sanctioned by the "highest levels" of the Iranian regime, sparking the intense round of speculation about U.S. intentions.
"I think there's no question that the skepticism has less to do about competing explanations than just generalized doubt about the administration's judgment," said Thompson.
"You really can prove that the munitions in question came from Iran. But the question is what interpretation to make of that. And on that score the public really doesn't much trust the White House's interpretation of events," he said.
The allegations themselves were not new, which suggested to some analysts that the briefing was timed to step up pressure on Iran at a time when a diplomatic confrontation over its nuclear program is reaching a critical stage.
Bush had already ordered a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf and stepped up raids in Iraq on networks supplying Iranian arms to Iraqi militias.
"I think it has to do with a whole new policy toward Iran which is more confrontational," said Vali Nasr, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview carried on its website.
"Putting Iran in the spotlight in Iraq is a part of a policy of escalating pressure on Tehran, as well as also potentially preparing the American population for more drastic action against Iran by trying to single out Iran as the problem in Iraq, whether or not that's actually true," he said.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, said the briefing aroused controversy because "it really looks like Mr. Bush is getting ready to bomb Iran."
But there were other reasons as well. The evidence was unconvincing and "their credibility was shot after the intelligence failure around Iraq," he said.
IRAN ALLEGES U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN DEADLY ATTACK
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times
February 19, 2007
[PHOTO CAPTION: A screen grab taken from Al-Alam Iranian Arabic-language satellite channel, shows weapons confiscated from a militant group that was responsible for a deadly bomb in the Iranian city of Zahedan 14 February 2007.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: A screen grab taken from Al-Alam Iranian Arabic-language satellite channel, shows a photograph of the cartridge box that was published by Iranian newspapers and agencies.]
TEHRAN -- Bullet cartridges bearing a U.S. insignia and English lettering were among the weaponry seized last week from Sunni militants suspected of killing 11 members of Shiite-dominated Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, Iranian officials said Sunday.
A photograph of the cartridge box, along with an array of other ammunition, was published by Iranian newspapers and agencies.
The Iranians did not provide direct access to the weapons and explosives, drawing skepticism from analysts, and there was no way to evaluate the claims independently. But Iran is worried that the United States is quietly helping Iranian opposition groups foment internal instability, even while the Bush administration is directly confronting Iran over its nuclear program and its alleged arming of Shiite militants in Iraq.
The Iranian allegations, in the latest incidents of a wave of non-Shiite minority unrest, came a week after U.S. officials laid out what they said was evidence of Iranian-made weaponry in Iraq. That evidence also was inconclusive, and Iran denied supplying arms to Iraqi combatants.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Marine Maj. Rebecca Goodrich-Hinton, said Sunday that officials had no comment in response to the allegations from Tehran.
Iranian officials in the southeastern region of Sistan-Baluchestan, where a bus carrying the troops was struck by explosives from a booby-trapped car Wednesday, announced the allegations of U.S. and British involvement in the attack.
"Washington and London are facing serious challenges as their interests in the Middle East region have been endangered. Since the Islamic Republic is the main center of anti-U.S. struggles, they are seeking to trouble Iran through a series of challenges, including terrorist attacks and unrests," an unnamed local official, identified as the political director of the Sistan-Baluchestan province, told the semi-official Fars news agency.
He said weapons used in the attack, which also wounded 31 people, were U.S. and British-made. "Moreover, the arrested terrorist agents have confessed that they have been trained by English-speaking people," the official said.
Over the past year, Iran has seen a wave of protests and bombings from non-Shiite minorities, especially Sunni Muslims living along the nation's western border with Iraq and its eastern border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, where two bombings occurred last week.
Sunnis, who make up about 8 percent of the population of predominantly Shiite Iran, have long complained of repression and discrimination. Although there are an estimated 1 million Sunnis in Tehran, the government has not allowed a single Sunni mosque to be built in the capital.
Three people were reportedly hanged in the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan earlier this month for a series of deadly bombings last year; seven others were executed earlier in connection with the case.
Ethnic Azeris and Kurds also have been increasingly militant in favor of greater autonomy, and the violence last week in Sistan-Baluchestan is the latest in a wave of ethnic unrest among ethnic Baluch on both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border.
Responsibility for the bus bombing and another explosion the following day was claimed by the Sunni militant group Jundallah, or God's Brigade, which has been blamed for past attacks on Iranian troops in the region.
Stratfor, a Texas-based security and intelligence analysis firm, said in a report Saturday that the attacks "fall in line with U.S. efforts to supply and train Iran's ethnic minorities to destabilize the Iranian regime." It said a "covert intelligence war" between Iran and the United States is "well under way."
Other analysts said a large amount of U.S. military equipment supplied to Iran in the years before the 1979 Islamic revolution is still in use, and the existence of U.S.-manufactured ammunition, if it exists, does not prove U.S. involvement.
These analysts said ethnic unrest in Iran is more likely a reflection of the ethnic nationalism that is unleashing conflict in multiethnic nations such as the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Spain.
"We're living in a period in history when multinational states break up. And why should Iran be the exception?" said Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I'd be very surprised if the level of violence by the Kurds and the Baluch doesn't increase, or indeed if the Sunni Arabs in (Khuzestan) stop agitating. It's a natural thing," he said.
--Times staff writer David Willman contributed to this report from Washington.
IRAN TIES SUNNI INSURGENTS TO BASE IN PAKISTAN
By Nazile Fathi
New York Times
February 19, 2007 (posted Feb. 18)
TEHRAN -- The Iranian Foreign Ministry charged Sunday that Sunni insurgents from Iran used Pakistan as a base to plan a bombing that killed 11 people and wounded more than 30 in the southeastern border city of Zahedan last week, and it said that it had demanded an explanation from the Pakistani ambassador.
“We summoned the Pakistani ambassador to explain what happened,” Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the ministry, said during his weekly news conference on Sunday. Both sides will suffer from insecurity and we decided to set up a committee to raise the security at the borders,” he said.
A car loaded with explosives detonated in front of a bus carrying members of the Revolutionary Guards last Wednesday.
A second bomb was set off in Zahedan on Friday evening. The semiofficial Fars news agency reported that it caused no casualties. But the news agency said the police clashed with an armed group and exchanged gunfire after the blast.
Zahedan, the capital of the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, is home to many ethnic Baluchis, who are Sunni Muslims. A majority of Iranians are Shiites. A Baluchi group opposed to the government, the Jondollah Organization of Iran, claimed responsibility for both attacks.
A senior security official said 65 people had been arrested in connection to the blasts.
Newspapers in Tehran reported Sunday that the state-run Hamoun channel in Sistan-Baluchistan broadcast a two-minute confession by a suspect, Nasrollah Shamsi Zehi, who was accused of being involved in the deadly bombing. He said he had robbed a bank in Zahedan, then escaped to Pakistan, where he was trained by Jondollah for two months and was told that he would receive $1,200 for each mission.
Iran has accused the United States and Britain of provoking the Sunni insurgents. The authorities have said that the efforts are part of the plot to sow discord among Sunnis and Shiites in the country. Gen. Mohammad Ghaffari, a commander of security forces in the province, told the Fars news agency that a film that was confiscated from the suspects proved that the group was “affiliated to intelligence agencies of some of the foreign countries, such as the U.S. and Britain.”
The news agency also quoted what it called informed sources as saying that the explosives used in the bombings were American.
Iran blamed the United States and Britain for a series of bombings in the southern city of Ahwaz in Khuzestan Province in 2006. Those bombings were also carried out by Iranian Sunnis. The government hanged 12 men after accusing them of carrying out the attacks, which killed eight people.
Tensions have increased between Iran and the United States in recent months. The United States has accused Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and of arming Shiite insurgents in Iraq. Iran has rejected both charges and contends that the United States wants to find a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq.
The Revolutionary Guards announced Sunday that they would hold three days of maneuvers starting Monday. The exercises, at least the second so far this year, are aimed at displaying Iran’s military capacity as concerns about a confrontation with the United States are increasing.
The maneuvers will take place in 16 of Iran’s 30 provinces, and 60,000 soldiers will take part, the IRNA news agency reported Sunday.
IRAN'S CHANCE: U.S. TROUBLES IN IRAQ CREATE OPENING FOR REGIONAL SHIFT
By Michael Slackman
New York Times
February 18, 2007
Section 1, Page 11
[PHOTO CAPTION: Shiites in Karbala, Iraq, at a recent religious ceremony, a show of Shiite devotion that resonates with Iran’s religious and revolutionary identity.]
CAIRO -- In recent weeks, President Bush and American military officials have increasingly accused Iran of meddling in Iraq’s affairs. But from Iran’s perspective, given its longstanding interests in Iraq, it is the United States that is meddling in its backyard, analysts inside and outside of Iran say.
From the very start of the American occupation of Iraq, at least some in the Bush administration saw an opportunity to curtail the influence of Iran’s radical Shiite leaders by producing an alternative, moderate center of Shiite Islam that would effectively neuter Tehran in ideological, political, and strategic terms.
This was abundantly clear to Iran’s clerical rulers, whose paramount priority since they seized power in 1979 has been to preserve their revolution and their grip on their own country.
Faced with more than 100,000 American troops next door and a White House that pursued a policy of pre-emptive war, Iran’s leaders moved quickly to try to prevent the United States from gaining a permanent foothold.
“Iran’s policy in Iraq works to prevent the U.S. from feeling safe and secure,” said Talal Atrissi, a researcher and writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in Lebanon. “It works to prevent the formation of a pro-American Iraqi government, in favor of at least an Iraqi government that does not feel enmity toward Iran.”
While the United States sees in Iraq a venture that will affect its foreign interests for years to come, Iran sees an occupied neighbor with close religious, cultural, political, and economic ties. Though Iran is Persian while Iraq is Arab, both have majority Shiite populations that have mingled, religiously and culturally, for centuries.
“We have been there for thousands of years,” said Reza Alavi, a historian and a former managing editor of the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review, who said his own grandfather -- like many Iranian Shiites -- was buried in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf.
Mr. Atrissi said: “The Iranian historic, religious, economic ties with Iraq make Iran keen on preventing the U.S. being the sole authority in Iraq. They feel a duty to preserve these ties, and to protect their national security, which is threatened by the U.S. presence in Iraq.”
In strategic terms, America’s failure to secure its position in Iraq has presented Tehran with a rare opportunity to recalibrate the balance of power in a neighborhood that had long been hostile to its aspirations.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Iran was virtually surrounded by the Sunni-dominated states of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with Turkey, a NATO member, on its northern flank.
Now, with the initial rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, its most powerful and fearsome competitors, Iran is trying to assert itself as the dominant regional power.
In defiance of the United Nations Security Council, the Iranian government has proceeded with a nuclear program that it says is for peaceful purposes, but that the West says is aimed at developing weapons. Iran has strengthened ties with Syria, built the militia Hezbollah into a state within a state in Lebanon and offered support to the radical Palestinian group Hamas.
But the cornerstone to its regional plans lies in Baghdad.
In economic terms, Iran has an interest in a stable, Tehran-friendly Iraq. For decades, while Mr. Hussein was in power, Iraq was an economic obstacle for Iran, a wall blocking trading routes and diplomatic ties with its Arab neighbors.
The chaos in Iraq still means that Iran’s trade with Syria has to be routed through Turkey. But Iranian officials say they hope someday to link the railroads of Iran and Syria with Iraq’s, redrawing the economics of the region.
But Tehran’s interests in Iraq cut much deeper than the economic. They range from its ideological desire to spread its influence throughout the Arab world -- part of the so-called Shiite revival -- to its connection to the people and holy sites of Iraq.
“Iran and Iraq’s national interests are intertwined,” said Farzaneh Roostaee, foreign editor of *Shargh*, a popular reformist daily in Iran that the government shut down late last year. “Both geographically and religiously, the two countries have many common interests. No matter how much Americans try, they can not separate these two countries from one another. It won’t work.”
The connections extend to the political sphere, as well. Iraq’s two dominant Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Iraqi Islamic Revolution, or Sciri, have deep roots in Iran, where many Shiite leaders fled to escape Mr. Hussein’s violent repression of Shiites, which intensified after the Iranian revolution.
Several top Dawa leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and a former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, along with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Sciri, lived for years in Iran before returning to Iraq after the American invasion. Sciri was founded in Iran in 1984, and its armed wing, the Badr Brigade, fought with Iran in the long, bitter war with Iraq in the 1980s.
The militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr travels frequently to Iran; American officials said he went there this week to escape the security crackdown in Baghdad, though Shiite officials disputed that. And Mr. Sadr’s potent militia, the Mahdi Army, is said to have received training from the Iranians.
There are deep spiritual connections, too, centered in Najaf and Karbala, the Iraqi cities which have for centuries been central to the Shiite faith. Long before the Iranian city of Qum grew into a hub of Islamic learning, Najaf was the center of thinking for the Shiite faithful. In the early 1900s, the religious scholars in Najaf effectively exported what came to be known as Iran’s constitutional revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lived in Najaf for 12 years during his exile before returning to lead the overthrow of the shah of Iran and the installation of the clerical system. It is believed that Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, is buried there, and his tomb is a leading site for Shiite pilgrims.
Karbala resonates throughout Shiite ideology and faith as the site of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, and his followers at the hands of a far larger Sunni army. His tomb is in Karbala, and his death in battle is central to Shiite notions of justice, self-sacrifice and opposition to oppression.
The religious centers are so important to Iranians that legions of them still visit the shrines even amid the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq today.
“There are still a lot of lower-middle-class Iranians who want to go to Iraq,” said Mr. Alavi in Iran. “It is a really big deal to them. They want to go, as they say, to ‘kiss the feet of Imam Hussein.’”
Those links to Iran’s religious and revolutionary identity, combined with the presence of American troops in Iraq and thousands of NATO forces in Afghanistan, are more than enough justification for Iran to try to counter American influence next door, political analysts in the region said.
“It is not logical to have an American presence in Iraq, and Iran sitting passively, waiting for the formation of an anti-Iranian Iraqi government,” Mr. Atrissi said. “From the Iranian perspective, Iran is a country defending its national security.”
--Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran, and Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon