WASHINGTON — U.S. forces will step up their offensive against Iranians and Syrians in Iraq as part of President Bush's new plan for the country, American officials said Wednesday, in a step likely to further inflame Washington's relationship with Tehran.
U.S. officials contend that Iran and Syria have been allowing militants to enter Iraq from their territory, and accuse Tehran of providing arms, money and training to Shiite Muslim militias. In his speech laying out the plan, Bush bluntly warned the two countries that American forces would "disrupt" their activities and said he was sending U.S. warships to the region.
"We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria," Bush said. "And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush administration documents describing the plan say Iran "has been cultivating influence in Iraq through all means at its disposal." The documents describe the aggressive new administration policy as a "key operational shift" for the U.S.
The papers say Syrian actions pose "less of a strategic threat to Iraq than the Iranian actions" but compound the challenges faced by the fledgling Iraqi government.
A tough new U.S. approach to Iran is likely to sharpen frictions with the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which has close and valued ties with its eastern neighbor.
Despite growing U.S. complaints about Syrian and Iranian meddling, encounters between American forces and nationals of the two countries have been rare.
One notable exception came last month, when U.S. troops in Baghdad, in a raid, arrested Iranians they believed were running guns and planning sectarian attacks. The Iraqi government ordered the two men out of the country nine days later; many Iraqis were furious, complaining that the arrests were unjustified. Some Iraqi officials contended that the arrests were intended as a signal that Iraq should not build a relationship with Iran without U.S. permission.
White House papers on Bush's new plan for Iraq say that, in conjunction with the tough new stance toward Iran and Syria, the U.S. is moving military equipment into the Persian Gulf. Pentagon officials said this week that they were ordering a second aircraft carrier battle group, including ships and warplanes, to the gulf, as a message to Iran.
Bush in his speech said that intelligence-sharing would be expanded in the region and that Patriot air defense systems were being deployed "to reassure our friends and allies."
The new policy comes at a time when the U.S. and Iran are already colliding on several fronts.
Washington has been the primary force behind a diplomatic effort that last month led the U.N. Security Council to impose mild sanctions on Iran for enriching uranium as part of what U.S. officials believe is Tehran's effort to build a nuclear bomb. Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful energy development.
U.S. officials have been trying to strengthen defense ties with Persian Gulf and other states to counter Iran's perceived growing influence in the region.
The U.S. Treasury Department has been taking steps to limit Tehran's access to Western investment, moves that have begun to crimp Iran's economy.
Administration officials continue to reject a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel, to establish contact with Tehran and Damascus to explore common interests in Iraq and elsewhere.
The panel, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), said in its December report that the U.S. needed to open talks with the two nations even if it disapproved of the regimes, because Iran and Syria wield influence in Iraq.
But the administration maintains that to reach any compromise with the two governments it would need to give way on vital issues, such as its push to end Tehran's nuclear ambitions and to halt Iran's support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. U.S. officials said Wednesday that they remained strongly opposed to talks.
Even so, Bush's new plan calls for regional meetings that would draw Syria and Iran into group diplomatic discussions on Iraq, and could lead to conversations between Washington and the two countries as part of the group.
The plan calls for the Iraqis to convene such a conference, just as they organized a multinational conference in Egypt in November 2004 to build more support for the new Iraqi state.