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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: ACCUSATIONS AGAINST IRAN

U.S. delays report on Iranian role in Iraq

February 01, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has postponed plans to offer public details of its charges of Iranian meddling inside Iraq amid internal divisions over the strength of the evidence, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials promised last week to provide evidence of Iranian activities that led President Bush to announce Jan. 10 that U.S. forces would begin taking the offensive against Iranian agents who threatened Americans.

But some officials in Washington are concerned that some of the material may be inconclusive and that other data cannot be released without jeopardizing intelligence sources and methods. They want to avoid repeating the embarrassment that followed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that information the administration cited to justify the war was incorrect, said the officials, who described the internal discussions on condition of anonymity.

"We don't want a repeat of the situation we had when [then-Secretary of State] Colin L. Powell went before the United Nations," said one U.S. official, referring to Powell's 2003 presentation on then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's unconventional weapons program that relied on evidence later found to be false. "People are going to be skeptical."

The current debate pits some U.S. diplomatic and military officials in Iraq, who are seeking to compile an aggressive case on Iran, against other officials in Washington, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who are urging greater caution, according to the officials, who spoke in the last several days.

The Bush administration has charged repeatedly that Iranian agents and military personnel have been bringing in explosives and other weaponry for use in Iraq by Shiite Muslim militants. U.S. intelligence and military officials have said they have substantial evidence of Iranian involvement, but have not made it public.

The mounting U.S. charges against Iran have been accompanied by the movement of American warships into the Persian Gulf, giving rise to fears of a possible U.S. attack.

U.S. forces arrested a group of Iranians in Baghdad in December and are holding five Iranian officials who were detained Jan. 11 in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. At the same time, the administration has shunned a proposal by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to open direct talks with Iran and Syria as part of a plan to quell the violence in Iraq.

The U.S. claims led Tehran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, to challenge American officials last month to show "any shred of evidence" of Iranian meddling.

The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, promised last week to do so, and American officials initially planned to release their dossier Tuesday.

But the release was delayed, and Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, declined Wednesday to predict when the report would be issued.

"We'll do this on our own timeline," he told reporters. "And we're going to do it in such a way that it is properly presented, it is clear, and that it is done in such a way that ... we don't in any way jeopardize [U.S. officials'] ability to further collect information about these networks."

This week, McCormack denied that U.S. intelligence failures and erroneous pre-Iraq war claims had made the job of preparing the new dossier more difficult.

The administration's quandary is one more indication of the difficulties the United States faces in Iraq as it tries to limit the influence of the Iranians, whom it increasingly views as its chief regional rival. There are thousands of Iranians in Iraq. Some of them have strong ties to the U.S.-backed government.

One former senior U.S. defense official said that preparing such a case would involve trying to cull sensitive data for presentation to a skeptical American public.

"It's a losing proposition for the administration," said the former official, who declined to be identified when addressing intelligence issues.

U.S. military and embassy officials in Baghdad have been trying to build a case with a variety of evidence, according to officials.

But officials involved in interagency meetings on the issue in Washington, including some in the State Department and intelligence agencies, believe that some of the material overstates murky evidence and casts a negative light on Iranians who may not be guilty.

Another difficulty is that if some of the most sensitive information is withdrawn to protect intelligence sources, the result could be a weak and unconvincing report, the officials said.

The American official who requested anonymity said that although there were differences over the evidence, there was wide agreement within the U.S. government that Iran's actions were a threat and that the United States, while avoiding war, should be more aggressive in confronting Iran in Iraq.

"But that doesn't mean you want to go overboard," the official added. "Everyone at the Iranian Embassy isn't some kind of spy or revolutionary."

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