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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Blair Hints at Iran Link in Iraq

The British leader says Tehran or its Hezbollah allies may be the source of sophisticated bombs that insurgents are using against coalition forces.

October 07, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced concern Thursday that Iran, or an Iranian-backed militant group, may be supplying insurgents with sophisticated explosives being used against British and U.S. troops in Iraq.

At a news conference with visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Blair stopped short of directly accusing Tehran. But he hinted that the Islamic Republic, which shares a long border with Iraq, may be covertly interfering, in part because of U.S. and European attempts to curtail Iran's nuclear program.

"What is clear is that there have been new explosive devices used, not just against British troops but elsewhere in Iraq," Blair said. "The particular nature of those devices leads us either to Iranian elements or to Hezbollah, because they are similar to the devices used by Hezbollah that is funded and supported by Iran. However, we cannot be sure of this at the present time."

Iran immediately denied any link to explosives used against foreign troops in Iraq and said that it seeks stability for its neighbor. "Foreign forces in Iraq, including the British, are the main source of instability and insecurity in that country," the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement given to CNN.

Blair spoke a day after a Foreign Office spokesman, who requested anonymity, raised similar claims at a meeting with British journalists. Blair was asked about the charges at the first opportunity, when he and Talabani appeared at the Downing Street news conference.

Even as he raised concerns about Iranian interference in Iraq, Blair emphasized that Britain, which has lost about 100 soldiers in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, would not be chased out.

Britain maintains about 8,500 troops in southern Iraq, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims. Although the Sunni Arab-led insurgency is stronger in central and western Iraq, the south has recently seen a surge of roadside bombings, and tensions between British forces and local authorities in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, have been running high.

Iran has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq. But some military experts believe it is content to see British and U.S. troops bogged down there, making military action against Iran's nuclear facilities less practical.

Blair insisted that British troops are in Iraq under a United Nations mandate and at the behest of the U.N.-backed Iraqi government. "There is no justification for Iran or any other country interfering," he said.

He added that Britain would not "be subject to any intimidation" aimed at preventing it from "raising the necessary and right issues to do with nuclear weapons obligations of Iran."

Britain has taken a lead role among European countries in trying to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or fissile material for nuclear bombs. Tehran says its nuclear program is aimed solely at generating electricity, but the U.S. and other countries are concerned that it is trying to produce atomic weapons.

The U.S. has leveled similar charges of interference against Iran. In August, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused Iran of arming insurgents and said unspecified Iranian weapons had been found in Iraq.

Talabani, a Kurd whose guerrilla forces developed close ties to Iran during the rule of Saddam Hussein and whose Shiite coalition partners also have emphasized good relations with Tehran, said his government had discussed the issue with "some Iranian brothers."

"They denied it," he said. "They say, 'We are not doing anything against the Iraqi people or against multinational forces because we want to see Iraq stable, and we are not ready to bring our differences with the United States to inside Iraq.' " Talabani said Iraq would continue to investigate.

Times staff writer Janet Stobart contributed to this report.

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