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U.S. cites new evidence of Iranian role in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military renewed its accusations yesterday that Iran is providing arms, training and other unspecified "support" to Shiite and Sunni factions in this country's insurgency.

The accusations were leveled by top-ranking coalition spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV at his weekly news briefing, and were based on recent raids that he said uncovered weapons bearing Iranian markings and dates that suggested they were delivered after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The charges could fuel U.S.-Iranian tensions already inflamed by the Islamic Republic's announcement this week that it has begun manufacturing "industrial" quantities of atomic fuel in violation of a United Nations resolution. Last week, the Iranians ended a nearly two-week standoff with Britain by releasing 15 British sailors and marines they had captured in a disputed area of the Persian Gulf.

Caldwell's assertions came as hopes faded for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in the aftermath of preliminary Iraqi peace conference held here in March. U.S., Iranian and Iraqi representatives met in a rare effort to try to iron out differences. Observers described the meeting as cordial but tense.

Previous charges that Iranian leaders were providing arms and training support for Iraqi insurgents were denied by Iran. U.S. critics of President Bush said they were part of a campaign to prepare for an invasion, much as allegations that weapons of mass destruction were stockpiled by Saddam Hussein led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

But two academics who have criticized Bush policy in the past say Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, probably is covering its bets with aid to the various insurgent factions.

"The goal of the Iranians is to be the dominant player in Iraq after the Americans have gone. By getting us out, and with enough ties to people who will be in power, they are guaranteeing their role," said Gregory Gause, director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, said he doubted that the Bush administration was repeating charges of Iranian interference to justify another invasion.

"As much as I tend to criticize the Bush administration, the claim that they are preparing for another invasion doesn't begin to hold water to a strategist. We don't have the forces. We don't have the rationale," O'Hanlon said.

In mid-February President Bush and Caldwell distanced themselves from assertions made that month by unnamed U.S. officials that Iranian leaders had personally ordered the aid to insurgent groups. Bush blamed elements of Iranian armed forces.

Yesterday, Caldwell said Shiite insurgents had received training at undisclosed locations in Iran "this month." Asked whether the Iranian government has conducted the training, Caldwell responded that "Iranian intelligence surrogates" had been responsible.

Caldwell and ordnance specialist Maj. Martin Weber also showed reporters a cache of a dozen mortar rounds, rockets and rocket propelled grenades found in Baghdad on Monday. Their design and the markings they bore indicated they were manufactured either in Iran or China, and were painted over with Iranian stenciling, the officials said.

The cache, which was recovered based on a citizen tip, also bore the years 2005 and 2006, referring to when they were made, Weber said. If those dates are accurate, they indicate the arms could not have been part of weapons stockpiled prior to Hussein's overthrow in April 2003.

Syria is also providing aid to the insurgency, Caldwell said. He said two of 14 insurgents detained over the weekend in a Baghdad sweep said during interrogation that they had received training in Syria.

The U.S. military reported yesterday the deaths of two more soldiers, both the victims of attacks in Baghdad on Tuesday and yesterday.

Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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