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Troops Authorized to Kill Iranian Operatives in Iraq
Officials who spoke in more detail and without permission -- including senior officials, career analysts and policymakers -- said their standing with the White House would be at risk if they were quoted by name.
The decision to use lethal force against Iranians inside Iraq began taking shape last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Officials said a group of senior Bush administration officials who regularly attend the highest-level counterterrorism meetings agreed that the conflict provided an opening to portray Iran as a nuclear-ambitious link between al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the death squads in Iraq.
Among those involved in the discussions, beginning in August, were deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, NSC counterterrorism adviser Juan Zarate, the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, representatives from the Pentagon and the vice president's office, and outgoing State Department counterterrorism chief Henry A. Crumpton.
At the time, Bush publicly emphasized diplomacy as his preferred path for dealing with Iran. Standing before the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 19, Bush spoke directly to the Iranian people: "We look to the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."
Two weeks later, Crumpton flew from Washington to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa for a meeting with Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. A principal reason for the visit, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the discussion, was to press Abizaid to prepare for an aggressive campaign against Iranian intelligence and military operatives inside Iraq.
Information gleaned through the "catch and release" policy expanded what was once a limited intelligence community database on Iranians in Iraq. It also helped to avert a crisis between the United States and the Iraqi government over whether U.S. troops should be holding Iranians, several officials said, and dampened the possibility of Iranians directly targeting U.S. personnel in retaliation.
But senior officials saw it as too timid.
"We were making no traction" with "catch and release," a senior counterterrorism official said in a recent interview, explaining that it had failed to halt Iranian activities in Iraq or worry the Tehran leadership. "Our goal is to change the dynamic with the Iranians, to change the way the Iranians perceive us and perceive themselves. They need to understand that they cannot be a party to endangering U.S. soldiers' lives and American interests, as they have before. That is going to end."
A senior intelligence officer was more wary of the ambitions of the strategy.
"This has little to do with Iraq. It's all about pushing Iran's buttons. It is purely political," the official said. The official expressed similar views about other new efforts aimed at Iran, suggesting that the United States is escalating toward an unnecessary conflict to shift attention away from Iraq and to blame Iran for the United States' increasing inability to stanch the violence there.
But some officials within the Bush administration say that targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Command, and specifically a Guard unit known as the Quds Force, should be as much a priority as fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Quds Force is considered by Western intelligence to be directed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to support Iraqi militias, Hamas and Hezbollah.
In interviews, two senior administration officials separately compared the Tehran government to the Nazis and the Guard to the "SS." They also referred to Guard members as "terrorists." Such a formal designation could turn Iran's military into a target of what Bush calls a "war on terror," with its members potentially held as enemy combatants or in secret CIA detention.
Asked whether such a designation is imminent, Johndroe of the NSC said in a written response that the administration has "long been concerned about the activities of the IRGC and its components throughout the Middle East and beyond." He added: "The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force is a part of the Iranian state apparatus that supports and carries out these activities."
Staff writer Barton Gellman and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.