By Robin Wright and Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 12, 2007
U.S. troops launched two raids on Iranian targets in Iraq yesterday, following through on President Bush's vow to confront and break up Tehran's networks inside Iraq. Five Iranians were detained, and vast amounts of documents and computer data were confiscated, according to U.S., Iraqi and Iranian officials.
The two raids are part of a new U.S. intelligence and military operation launched last month against Iran, U.S. officials said. The United States is trying to identify and detain top officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade operating in Iraq. The al-Quds Brigade is active in arming, training and funding militant movements, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, throughout the Middle East.
"Throughout Iraq, operations are currently ongoing against individuals suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and Coalition forces," the headquarters of the U.S.-led Multi-National Force-Iraq said in a statement yesterday.
While the public focus is on Iraq, the administration is now spending as much time on plans to contain Iran as on a strategy to end Iraq's violence, U.S. officials said.
Last month, U.S. forces seized two senior Iranians -- Brig. Gen. Mohsen Chirazi and Col. Abu Amad Davari -- in the first round of raids. Chirazi is the No. 3 official in the al-Quds Brigade and the highest ranking Iranian ever held by the United States.
Yesterday's raids were both in Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. One was carried out at 3 a.m. on the Iranian Liaison Office, which is used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a local headquarters, U.S. officials said. Kurdish officials said U.S. troops came in helicopters. They disarmed the security guards, broke through the gate, entered the building and detained six men, Iranian officials told the Iranian news agency. One was later released.
The other raid was at the Irbil airport, where U.S. forces tried to detain people until Kurdish troops intervened -- and almost ended up in a confrontation with U.S. troops, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "A massacre was avoided at the last minute," he said. A U.S. official confirmed that the incident nearly resulted in U.S. and Kurdish allies firing at one another.
The action in Irbil is one of the genuinely new additions to the U.S. strategy in Iraq. Bush said Wednesday that the United States will now "seek out and destroy the networks" arming and training U.S. enemies. He also announced that he is ordering another aircraft carrier and supporting ships to the Persian Gulf area near Iran in a show of force.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, charged yesterday that Iran is "complicit" in providing weapons designed to kill American troops. "We will do all we need to do to defend our troops in Iraq by going after the entire network regardless of where those people come from," he said at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Rice outlined a carrot-and-stick strategy, offering to meet with her Iranian counterpart "anytime, anywhere" to discuss "every facet" of U.S.-Iranian relations -- with the condition that Tehran suspend its program for enriching uranium, which can be used for nuclear weapons as well as for generating energy. Until that time, she said, the United States will "use all our power to limit and counter the activities of Iranian agents who are attacking our people and innocent civilians in Iraq."
Rice effectively dismissed a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that last month urged the administration to launch a dialogue with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. She told reporters that Tehran and Damascus should not "be paid" to end their "destabilizing behavior," and that such a move would both demoralize friends and embolden enemies across the Middle East.
But the new U.S. policy to confront Iranians in Iraq has already sparked divisions within the administration. The Pentagon wanted to hold the two top al-Quds officials for questioning, but the State Department backed an Iraqi request to deport them. They were sent home a week after their capture.
The Kurdish government had approved the opening of the Iranian Liaison Office, which provided consular services and which Iran wants to upgrade to a formal consulate, the Iraqi foreign minister said. Before the raids, U.S. forces did not consult with the Iraqi government, which is now trying to establish procedures and agreements for future operations, he said. "This is a very, very dangerous thing," he said.
Iran's foreign ministry summoned Iraqi and Swiss diplomats to protest and demand an explanation, according to Iran's mission to the United Nations. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran. Tehran contends that the five men detained are all diplomats, an assertion that Iraq's foreign minister and U.S. officials reject.
Trejos reported from Iraq. Staff writer Joshua Partlow in Iraq contributed to this report.