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Rice says Bush authorized Iranians’ arrest in Iraq

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New York Times: A recent series of American raids against Iranians in Iraq was authorized under an order that President Bush decided to issue several months ago to undertake a broad military offensive against Iranian operatives in the country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday. The New York Times

By DAVID E. SANGER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
Published: January 13, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 — A recent series of American raids against Iranians in Iraq was authorized under an order that President Bush decided to issue several months ago to undertake a broad military offensive against Iranian operatives in the country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday.

“There has been a decision to go after these networks,” Ms. Rice said in an interview with The New York Times in her office on Friday afternoon, before leaving on a trip to the Middle East.

Ms. Rice said Mr. Bush had acted “after a period of time in which we saw increasing activity” among Iranians in Iraq, “and increasing lethality in what they were producing.” She was referring to what American military officials say is evidence that many of the most sophisticated improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, being used against American troops were made in Iran.

Ms. Rice was vague on the question of when Mr. Bush issued the order, but said his decision grew out of questions that the president and members of his National Security Council raised in the fall.

The administration has long accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, providing weapons and training to Shiite forces with the idea of keeping the United States bogged down in the war. Ms. Rice’s willingness to discuss the issue seemed to reflect a new hostility to Iran that was first evident in Mr. Bush’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, in which he accused Tehran of providing material support for attacks on American troops and vowed to respond.

Until now, despite a series of raids in which Iranians have been seized by American forces in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, administration officials have declined to say whether Mr. Bush ordered such actions.

The White House decision to authorize the aggressive steps against Iranians in Iraq appears to formalize the American effort to contain Iran’s ambitions as a new front in the Iraq war. Administration officials now describe Iran as the single greatest threat the United States faces in the Middle East, though some administration critics regard the talk about Iran as a diversion, one intended to shift attention away from the spiraling chaos in Iraq.

In adopting a more confrontational approach toward Iran, Mr. Bush has decisively rejected recommendations of the Iraq Study Group that he explore negotiations with Tehran as part of a new strategy to help quell the sectarian violence in Iraq.

In the interview on Friday, Ms. Rice described the military effort against Iranians in Iraq as a defensive “force protection mission,” but said it was also motivated by concerns that Iran was trying to further destabilize the country.

Mr. Bush’s public warning to Iran was accompanied by the deployment of an additional aircraft carrier off Iran’s coast and advanced Patriot antimissile defense systems in Persian Gulf countries near Iran’s borders. Both the White House and the secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, insisted Friday that the United States was not seeking to goad Iran into conflict, and that it had no intention of taking the battle into Iranian territory. The White House spokesman, Tony Snow, warned reporters away from “an urban legend that’s going around” that Mr. Bush was “trying to prepare the way for war” with Iran or Syria.

Mr. Gates said that the United States did not intend to engage in hot pursuit of the operatives into Iran.

“We believe that we can interrupt these networks that are providing support, through actions inside the territory of Iraq, that there is no need to attack targets in Iran itself,” Mr. Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I continue to believe what I told you at the confirmation hearing,” he added, referring to last month’s hearings on his nomination, “that any kind of military action inside Iran itself would be a very last resort.”

Ms. Rice’s comments came just a day after the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, issued a sharp warning to the administration about the recent raids against Iranians in Iraq, including one in Erbil early Thursday.

He said the vote to authorize the president to order the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein was not a vehicle for mounting attacks in Iran, even to pursue cells or networks assisting insurgents or sectarian militias. “I just want the record to show — and I would like to have a legal response from the State Department if they think they have authority to pursue networks or anything else across the border into Iran and Iraq — that will generate a constitutional confrontation here in the Senate, I predict to you,” Mr. Biden said.

In the view of American officials, Iran is engaged in a policy of “managed chaos” in Iraq. Its presumed goal, both policymakers and intelligence officials say, is to raise the cost to the United States for its intervention in Iraq, in hopes of teaching Washington a painful lesson about the perils of engaging in regime change.

Toward this end, American officials charge, Iran has provided components, including explosives and infrared triggering devices, for sophisticated roadside bombs that are designed to penetrate armor. They have also provided training for several thousand Shiite militia fighters, mostly in Iran. Officials say the training is carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

In the interview on Friday, Ms. Rice said, “We think they are providing help to the militias as well, and maybe even the more violent element of these militias.”

In addition, American officials say the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force is active in Iraq. A senior military official said last week that one of the Iranians seized in Baghdad late last month was the No. 3 Quds official. He said American forces uncovered maps of neighborhoods in Baghdad in which Sunnis could be evicted, and evidence of involvement in the war during the summer in Lebanon.

That Iranian official was ordered released, by Ms. Rice among others, after Iran claimed he had diplomatic status.

This week, American forces in Iraq conducted at least two raids against suspected Iranian operatives, including the raid in Erbil. The United States is currently detaining several individuals with Iranian passports who were picked up in those raids. The Iranians have said that they were in the process of establishing a consulate, but American officials said that the Erbil operation was a liaison office and that the workers there did not have diplomatic passports.

A defense official said Friday that such raids would continue. “We are going to be more aggressive,” he said, referring to the suspected Iranian operatives. “We are going to look for them and to try to do what we can to get them into custody.”

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.

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