"It is true that weapons -- clearly, unambiguously from Iran -- have been found in Iraq," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday. He stopped short of saying the Iraqi government is directly involved in the weapons transfers and did not specify to whom the arms are going.
But he suggested the Iranian government at least bears responsibility for failing to stop the activity. "It's a big border, and it's notably unhelpful for the Iranians to be allowing weapons of those types to cross the border," Rumsfeld said.
The charges come a week after U.S. media quoted intelligence officials as saying that a large shipment of machine-manufactured bombs coming from Iran had been captured in northeastern Iraq late last month.
"The New York Times" reported that the shipment contained so-called shaped charges designed to destroy armored vehicles. Shaped charges focus the force of the bomb’s explosive power in a specific direction to increase the chances of penetrating armor plating. Until now, most of the bombs targeting U.S. armored vehicles in Iraq have been improvised explosive devices assembled from weapon stockpiles in Iraq itself.
In recent weeks, coalition officials have also reported the seizure of a shipment of mostly small arms sent from Iran into southern Iraq.
The recent evidence of these arms transfers prompted U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to complain publicly last week that Iran was taking actions that undermine Iraqi security. “Iran is working along two contradictory tracks," he said. "On the one hand, Tehran works with the new Iraq. On the other, there is movement across its borders of people and material used in violent acts against Iraq.”
Jonathan Lindley, who researches regional issues at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says it is not clear who in Iran would be sponsoring the weapons transfers. But he says U.S. suspicion would almost certainly focus on such institutions as Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, which might or might not be acting with broader government approval.
“Iran tends to have a sort of multichannel administrative structure, and these sorts of issues of transnational support for Shi'a groups tend to be linked to the Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, and it would seem highly likely that any weapons that have been found are in some ways traceable back to them,” Lindley told RFE/RL.
The Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran’s armed forces, is often accused by the United States of supplying help to the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizballah. "The New York Times" reported that the seized shaped charges closely match those Hizballah has used against Israel.
The finding of the shaped charges in northeast Iraq suggests that they were delivered to groups of Arab Sunni insurgents in that area and intended for use against U.S. armored patrols.
The discovery also raises the question of whether the charges could be used by Arab Sunni insurgents against the Iraqi government -- with which Iran has improving relations -- or even against Iraqi Shi'ite targets. If so, Iran’s supplying the bombs would appear paradoxical.
But Lindley said the shaped explosives would likely not be suitable for the kind of attacks that Arab Sunni insurgents have carried out previously against Iraqi security forces and that some Al-Qaeda-linked groups have conducted on Shi'ite mosques. Those attacks have used car bombs or suicide bombers in explosive vests against nonarmored targets.
Meanwhile, the seizure of small arms from Iran in southern Iraq suggests continued Iranian support for Iraqi Shi'ite groups that forged close links with Tehran during the Saddam Hussein era.
These include two formerly exiled anti-Hussein groups that sheltered in Iran -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party. SCIRI’s militant wing, the Badr Brigades, was armed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to conduct guerrilla operations in Iraq against Hussein.
Both SCIRI and Al-Da'wah are today part of the U.S.-supported Iraqi government, but they are reported to maintain close ties with Iran.
Lindley says Iranian goals in Iraq appear to include pressing the U.S. military to leave Iraq without risking a war with Washington and trying to forge close ties with the emerging Iraqi government.
“It’s quite conceivable that what one is seeing is different parts [of the Iranian] government pursuing their own strategies with regard to Iraq. But it would seem quite credible that there is both a desire to prevent direct conflict with the United States over Iraq but to ensure that the government that does eventually emerge in Iraq is one that is pro-Iranian. Or if not pro-Iranian, at least resolves Iran’s continual security problems with Iraq,” Lindley said.
Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s and have yet to sign a full peace treaty. But relations have greatly improved since Iraqi Shi'ite politician Ibrahim al-Ja'fari became Iraq’s transitional prime minister in April.
In recent months, the two sides have discussed construction of a multimillion-dollar airport near the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf in southern Iraq. The project would be largely financed by a low-interest loan from Iran.
They have also announced plans to build an oil pipeline between Al-Basrah and Abadan, in Iran; the possible return of some of the 153 civilian and military aircraft that Saddam Hussein sent for storage in Iran during the early days of the 1991 Gulf War; and an Iranian offer of military cooperation, including training Iraqi armed forces.
Renewed Speculation About Tehran And Instability In Iraq
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