Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Doubting the Evidence Against Iran

Doubting the Evidence Against Iran

By MARK KUKIS AND ABIGAIL HAUSLOHNER/BAGHDAD

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A
merican circles in Baghdad and Washington are probably not pleased with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's plan for a special panel to investigate allegations of Iranian interference in Iraq. Many U.S. officials are already convinced of the worst and, for years, U.S. officials have aired accusations against Iran, insisting that Tehran is stoking Iraq's violence by keeping up a flow of money, weapons and trained fighters into the country. The Iraqi government, however, remains unconvinced — with good reason.

"We want to find really good evidence and not evidence made on speculations," Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday. Last week an Iraqi government delegation went to Tehran to discuss the allegations of Iranian involvement in the Iraqi militias, the government said. Details of the evidence presented in Tehran remains hazy, but at the same time American officials in Baghdad and Washington have never offered a convincing case publicly to support their allegations. [In the meantime, Tehran announced that it would not hold a new round of talks — the third of their kind with American representatives — regarding security in Iraq unless the U.S. ceased its operations against Iraqi Shi'ites. American forces have been working with the Iraqi Army against Shi'ite militias in Baghdad's sprawling slum, Sadr City.]

Indeed, the U.S. allegations appear to be based on speculation, spurred by the appearance about a year ago of a new breed of roadside bomb in Iraq. Explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, proved effective at piercing American armor by firing a concave copper disc from a makeshift cannon, which transformed the slug midair into a molten jet of super-heated metal. Accusations that Iran was shipping the things into Iraq grew louder as U.S. casualties from the weapon rose. But no concrete evidence has emerged in public that Iran was behind the weapons. U.S. officials have revealed no captured shipments of such devices and offered no other proof.

Instead, the Americans argued their case publicly with deductive reasoning: the copper slugs used in EFPs had to be precisely tooled with a heavy press in order to work properly, they said; no such heavy presses were in operation in Iraq, according to the Americans, therefore the slugs had to have been machined in Iran and moved into Iraq. It is, however, not impossible that such heavy presses may well be operating in Iraq. Three major cities in southern Iraq (Basra, Karbala and Najaf) have gone without a significant U.S. military presence for more than a year. These cities, which U.S. officials believe form hubs for the flow of arms into Baghdad, may indeed have such presses.

The U.S. has also alleged that Tehran was passing rockets to militia elements in Iraq for use against American troops and, lately, the Iraqi government living under American protection in the Green Zone. Recovered materials from some of the rockets reveal Iranian markings, American officials have said, without however producing convincing physical evidence.

The third leg in the U.S. argument against Iran is the longstanding assertion that the Qods Force, a paramilitary wing of the Iranian army, trains Iraqi militants inside Iran and then supports their guerrilla activity back in Iraq. The U.S. military has offered its most convincing public argument on this point, revealing details in July 2007 of the interrogation of an alleged Hizballah operative captured in Basra. TIME also interviewed two Iraqi guerrilla fighters who said they trained in Iran.

Taken altogether, the U.S. evidence offered publicly about Iran's supposedly nefarious activities in Iraq is far from a slam-dunk case, a fact Dabbagh was at pains to make when speaking to reporters in Baghdad. "If it turns out there is hard evidence, the government will deal with it," Dabbagh said.

The Americans in Iraq, for now, seem content to wait for the Iraqi government to change its view on Iran, a country that al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders largely see as a friend rather than a foe. "It looks like now that the government of Iraq wants to set up an official process to discuss Iranian interference with the Iranians, between official representatives of the Iraq government and the official Iranian government and when they do that, they'll gather whatever evidence they find and discuss that in dialogue with the Iranians," said Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "We've made the case. Now I think it's proper for the Iraqi government to make their case based on their interpretation of the facts, and have a dialogue with the government of Iran."

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