Sunday Telegraph: America’s military chiefs are at loggerheads with the country’s diplomats and spies over tactics for confronting Iranian agents in Iraq over their role in lethal attacks on US forces. The Sunday Telegraph
By Philip Sherwell in Washington
America’s military chiefs are at loggerheads with the country’s diplomats and spies over tactics for confronting Iranian agents in Iraq over their role in lethal attacks on US forces.
The rift has spilled over into a dispute about how and when to publish alleged evidence of Iranian backing for Iraqi militias and Iran’s provision of supplies and technology for roadside bombs, the biggest killer of American soldiers in Iraq, a White House adviser revealed.
It is fuelling fears among some US diplomats – shared by Britain and its European allies – that hawks within President George W Bush’s administration are preparing the ground for military action against Teheran before he leaves office in 23 months.
Angered by the mounting toll of troops killed by ever-more sophisticated devices, US commanders insisted last month that the White House give them authority to target and kill Iranian operatives in Iraq as part of the new 21,500-troop “surge” strategy ordered by Mr Bush.
But the State Department, headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the CIA had argued against openly targeting Iranian agents, most of whom claim to be diplomats based at Teheran’s network of consulates, liaison offices and cultural offices in Iraq.
They contended that this approach could escalate into direct armed conflict with Iran, which is under intense international pressure to give up its nuclear programme.
The State Department and the CIA, which both objected to the way the Bush administration used pre-war intelligence on Iraq, also wanted to publicise clear evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq as a way of justifying the US stance.
“The military’s highest echelons really do not want the release of details of what Iran is up to as they don’t want the Iranians to know what’s working and what’s not,” the administration adviser said.
“The military and the State Department and CIA are coming at this from very different approaches. State and the CIA believe we should respect the supposed diplomatic immunity of these Iranians. But the military has had enough and they say ‘to hell with their fake diplomatic immunity’.”
The splits within the administration come as reports emerge of new variants of “explosively formed projectiles” allegedly made with Iranian help.
The Pentagon said the first soldier was killed by one of the devices on Jan 22, but it is refusing to give further details of their use because it wants to limit the information available to its enemies.
The US has also suggested that Iranian operatives may have been involved in the abduction and killing of five soldiers in Kerbala, a potentially explosive accusation. But Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, acknowledged on Friday that the intelligence briefing on Iranian interference in Iraq – publication of which has been delayed twice – was still being refined.
The build-up of anti-Iran rhetoric and despatch of two US aircraft carriers to the region has echoes for some of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, prompting suspicions about the intentions of the remaining hawks within the administration, led by the vice-president, Dick Cheney.
The defence secretary, Robert Gates, sought to play down these concerns on Friday, saying that the US was not planning for a war with Iran but was determined to stop Iranians supplying bombs for attacks on American troops in Iraq.
Dan Goure, a Pentagon consultant, said that targeting Iranian operatives in Iraq was crucial to Mr Bush’s “surge” strategy. “You cannot try to deal with the militia if you’re not dealing with the Iranians backing them,” he said. “The message now is that the gloves are off. This is Bush’s last chance in Iraq and he isn’t going to hold back.”
The US has also increased flights of unmanned spy planes over the border corridor between Iraq and Iran, to track movements across the frontier to back up its claims about Teheran’s behaviour.
The drones were being flown into Iran from bases in Iraq to maintain a 24-hour check on a corridor running along “much” of the Iranian side of the border, an American intelligence officer told this newspaper.
The US is intent on not launching any attacks that could inadvertently hit Iranian soil. But once suspects were a few miles from the border inside Iraq, they would be “whacked”, the officer said.
John Pike, director of the military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org, said there were 600 or 700 drones operating in Iraq and “the air is thick with them”.
The Iranian military had upgraded gun and missile posts a few miles into its territory and was trying to bring down the drones, the intelligence officer said. The US is also believed to be flying drones above Iranian territory in search of intelligence about its nuclear facilities. The drones can use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather information that is not accessible by satellites.
Teheran claims it developed its secret atomic programme for civilian energy purposes, but Western governments believe it is pursuing a nuclear bomb.
Mr Bush has asked Congress for an additional $245 billion (£125 billion) for Iraq and Afghanistan for the next two fiscal years. If approved, the overall cost of the “war on terror” since the Sept 11 2001 attacks will rise to nearly $750 billion (£381 billion) – more in real terms than was spent on the Vietnam war.