Bush insists Iran behind bomb attacks in Iraq

But US President also tries to play down talk of war against Teheran.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush has piled the pressure on Iran, even as he tries to deflect growing concerns over rhetoric that sounds like a drumbeat for war.

He has declared that an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard – the Quds Force – was providing the sophisticated bombs being used to kill and wound American forces in Iraq.

“I can’t say it more plainly: there are weapons in Iraq that are harming US troops because of the Quds Force,” he said on Wednesday.

“And I intend to do something about it. And I’ve asked our commanders to do something about it…we’re going to protect our troops.”

His remarks come less than a week after the US sought to link Iran to deadly armour-piercing explosives and other weapons that they said were being used against American and Iraqi troops with increasing frequency.

But conflicting views are emerging in Washington – even within the military – about Iran’s involvement.

Controversy grew on Monday over reports that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, had told reporters in Australia that while he knew the weapons were Iranian-made, “I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit”.

A day later – after being asked by the State Department to toe the administration’s line – the four-star general persisted in making the same argument.

He said in Jakarta that the discovery of the explosives “could not translate to the Iranian government per se is directly involved in doing this”.

The irony is that it was Pentagon officials who had first released the information about the Iranian connection in an unprecedented background briefing to reporters in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone over the weekend.

They had even charged that the Iranian leadership was complicit by linking the Al-Quds chain of command directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This has now also emerged as a point of contention in Washington – adding to uncertainty over the Bush administration’s Iran strategy.

Mr Bush on Wednesday also fuelled speculation by contradicting the military’s account, saying: “We don’t know…whether the head leaders of Iran ordered it.”

“But here’s my point,” he added. “Either they knew or didn’t know, and what matters is that (the weapons) are there.”

The Democrat-controlled Congress – in the midst of a debate over the President’s decision to send more troops to Iraq – was clearly in no mood for mixed signals.

Many in Congress saw the administration’s moves as a bid to soften the ground before a military strike on Iran. As far as they were concerned, it was deja vu.

Given the administration’s failure to establish any links between Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction or Al-Qaeda, lawmakers have voiced concerns that it was trying to “cook the intelligence” on Iran, as it did against Iraq.

Senator Hillary Clinton warned Mr Bush not to take any military action against Iran without getting congressional approval first.

“If the administration believes that any, any use of force against Iran is necessary, the President must come to Congress to seek that authority,” the Democratic presidential contender said on Wednesday.

A former senior military official in the Bush administration told The Straits Times that Washington was sounding tough in response to pressure from three fronts: ground commanders in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear development and links to terrorist groups such as Hizbollah as well as concerns of Sunni allies in the region.

Critics have also asked why the charges against Teheran are coming to light only now, when US officials revealed that the first Iranian shipment of weapons to insurgents was first detected more than a year ago.

Analysts have suggested several possibilities, including an attempt to deflect mounting criticism of Mr Bush’s war strategy.

The administration could also be trying to lay a legal argument – the right of self-defence – for a military confrontation against Iran.

But many others believe that the main objective of the rhetoric is to pressure Iran into negotiating – on US terms. Full-scale war is not an option, given that American forces are stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the illusion of a military option will keep Iran on its toes and out of Iraq.

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