Bush Backs Force Against Iranians in Iraq

By DAVID STOUT

New York Times

January 26, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 -- American soldiers will do what they must to protect themselves from Iranian agents operating inside Iraq, the White House said today, following a report that President Bush had authorized the killing of Iranian agents.

“If our troops get actionable intelligence that agents are going to cause our troops or Iraqi citizens harm, they’re going to take whatever force protections that are necessary,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

The president himself told reporters today that, “It just makes sense that if somebody is trying to harm our troops or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them.”

He made the comment at a White House appearance with Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was confirmed by the Senate today as the new commander in Iraq.

“And so, yeah, we’re going to continue to protect ourselves in Iraq,” Mr. Bush went on, “and at the same time work to solve our problems with Iran diplomatically. And I believe we can succeed.”

The president remarks were in response to an article in The Washington Post today that said the White House had authorized the United States military to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy against Iran.

But Mr. Bush said any notion that the United States wants to widen its military campaign beyond the borders of Iraq “simply is not accurate.” The president and his top aides have said several times in recent weeks that there are no plans to pursue Iranian agents into Iran.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates echoed Mr. Bush’s remarks today. “Our forces are authorized to go after those who are trying to kill them,” Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon briefing. “And if you’re in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target.”

Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that President Bush had issued an order several months before authorizing a broad military offensive against Iranian operatives inside Iraq. She said that Iran had provided components for roadside bombs and training for thousands of Shiite militia fighters, mostly in Iran.

“There has been a decision to go after these networks,” she said in an interview with The New York Times, referring to Iranian operatives working inside Iraq.

The Post article today provided additional details of that effort, reporting that the Bush administration had authorized the American military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of a strategy to weaken Tehran’s influence in the Middle East and to give up its nuclear ambitions.

As the day wore on, Bush administration officials tried to dispel the impression that there was anything new in the strategy against Iran. Rather, they said, the use of lethal force against Iranian agents had never been ruled out.

The Post said lethal force against Iranians was not known to have been used to date. But the newspaper did say that dozens of suspected Iranian agents had been detained over the past year for three to four days at a time under a “catch and release” policy intended to avoid escalating tensions with Iran.

Mr. Gates, who took office in December, said he was under the impression that The Post report contained “a number of inaccuracies,” although he was not specific. And when he was asked whether the “kill-or-capture authority” applied to Iranians meddling in Iraq’s political or economic affairs, he replied, “What we’re looking for are people who are trying to kill us.”

In particular, Mr. Gates said, American forces were going after “these networks” that bring deadly homemade bombs, or “improvised explosive devices,” into Iraq “that are causing 70 percent of our casualties.”

Asked whether the administration had embarked on “a much larger” anti-Iran strategy, Mr. Gates replied, “No, I don’t think so.”

Mr. Johndroe of the National Security Council took issue with The Post’s description of the administration’s approach as “catch and release.” President Bush bluntly warned Iran on Jan. 10 to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs. The next day, American troops backed by helicopters and armored vehicles raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Erbil, Iraq, in the middle of the night and detained a half-dozen Iranians working inside. Shortly afterward, an additional American aircraft carrier was deployed off Iran’s coast.

The Iranian government said the raid violated international law. The American military said in a statement that documents and equipment removed from the office “will be examined to determine the extent of the alleged illegal or terrorist activity,” and that “appropriate action” would be taken regarding the detainees.

The White House has long accused Iran of providing weapons and training to Shiite forces in Iraq with the aim of keeping the United States bogged down in the war and teaching Washington a bitter lesson about the perils of regime change and nation-building.

In his 2002 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush described Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea, and administration officials have said Iran is the single greatest threat in the Middle East.

Asked why he was sticking to his plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq despite flagging Congressional support, Mr. Bush said: “One of the things I’ve found in Congress is that most people recognize that failure would be a disaster for the United States. And in that I’m the decision maker, I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster. In other words, I had to think about what’s likely to work.”

As for Iran, Mr. Bush said the Iranian people were not America’s enemy. “Our problem is with the government that takes actions that end up isolating your people, ends up denying the Iranian people their true place in the world,” he said.

Two leading Democratic senators had expressed concerns about the Bush administration’s approach to Iran even before The Post report.

A week ago, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that White House efforts to portray Iran as a growing threat are uncomfortably reminiscent of rhetoric about Iraq before the American invasion of 2003.

Mr. Rockefeller said the administration was building a case against Tehran even as American intelligence agencies still know little about either Iran’s internal dynamics or its intentions in the Middle East.

And Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently issued a sharp warning to the administration about the raids against Iranians in Iraq. Although the White House has said there are no plans to pursue Iranian agents into their own country, Mr. Biden said any cross-border operations “will generate a constitutional confrontation here in the Senate.”

Next week, the Senate is to debate a resolution endorsed by the Foreign Relations Committee denouncing the president’s plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

Mr. Gates said any such resolution “emboldens the enemy.” He said he was sure that was not the intention of its supporters, “but that’s the effect.”

Senator Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, said he backed a “kill or capture” policy toward Iranians operating in Iraq.

“We want the American troops protected in Iraq,” he said in a question-answer session at the Capitol. “Whatever it takes to protect them is something we’re certainly interested in. But for the president to escalate this conflict outside Iraq is something he has to come back and ask us permission to do.”

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mark Mazzetti contributed.