Questions Arise About Iran Bomb Claims

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

New York Times

February 14, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration struggled Tuesday to explain what it knows about alleged Iranian interference in Iraq after the Pentagon's top general appeared to contradict a recently released military dossier on the subject.

At issue was a weekend briefing in Baghdad at which three senior U.S. military officials said that the ''highest levels'' of the Iranian government had ordered the smuggling into Iraq of high-tech roadside bombs that have been killing American soldiers.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, that U.S. forces have arrested Iranians in Iraq and some of the materials used in roadside bombs had been made in Iran.

''That does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this,'' Pace said.

The assertion of Tehran's involvement, made by U.S. officers who spoke on condition of anonymity Sunday in Baghdad, had already drawn skeptical responses from some lawmakers and other critics still wary of an administration that based the invasion of Iraq on faulty intelligence.

Those doubts increased Tuesday after Pace said the link between the bomb materials and the government had not been definitively proven.

Defense experts said Pace's comments -- and the way the dossier had been presented to reporters anonymously -- cast doubt on how solid the administration case is against Iran. Some suggested the apparent mixed messages were meant to keep Tehran off guard.

Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank, called Pace's comments ''close to a contradiction'' of what briefers said Sunday in Baghdad.

''Obviously, they can talk their way around it ... but these guys are not naive about how words are interpreted, and the guys in Baghdad knew what impression they wanted to leave listeners with,'' O'Hanlon said.

John Hutson, a retired former Navy judge advocate general and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law School, said, ''I think we have to take away from it a huge dose of caution.''

''If we have disagreement within the military about the role of the Iranians, we have to proceed very cautiously,'' he added.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday he could not explain the apparent contradiction and referred questions to Pace's office and to American forces in Baghdad.

A military official on Pace's staff said the general stands by his comments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Asked if Pace had vetted the information that went into Sunday's briefing, the official said that Pace was aware of what was going to be presented in Baghdad but that the comment about involvement at the highest levels of Iranian government was not included in the material Pace was given.

Asked in a CNN interview whether he believed Iranians were shipping weapons to Iraq, the top commander in the Middle East said Tuesday he didn't know. ''I have no idea who may be actually with hands-on in this stuff, but I do know that this is not helpful to the situation in Iraq,'' said Navy Adm. William Fallon.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said that he had phoned Pace on Tuesday and that there was no disagreement.

He said Pace agreed with the basic scenario spelled out by U.S. military officials on Sunday and then backed up by the White House -- that weapons are moving into Iraq through the Iran's Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force.

''The Quds Force is, in fact, an official arm of the Iranian government and, as such, the government bears responsibility and accountability for its actions, as you would expect of any sovereign government,'' Snow told White House reporters.

''I think a lot of people are trying to whomp up a fight here that doesn't exist,'' Snow said.

U.S. officials have claimed for years that weapons were entering the country from Iran but had stopped short of alleging involvement by top Iranian leaders.

Sunday's briefing had been some time in the making. The administration moved to put together its information after Tehran demanded the United States present evidence of its allegations. Defense officials in Baghdad had first put together a larger dossier, but it was rejected by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other administration officials who questioned some of the information in it.

''Questions remain, questions have not been answered,'' said Christopher Preble, an analyst at the CATO Institute, a libertarian research group, also noting the unidentified sources at Sunday's briefing. ''At some level, that just seems not very credible to me.''

------

Associated Press reporters Chris Brummitt in Jakarta and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.