Lethal-Force Order Justified, Bush Says

By Dafna Linzer and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2007

President Bush yesterday defended a Pentagon program to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq, saying that U.S. troops would use all necessary measures to protect themselves and Iraqi civilians from harm.

"It makes sense that if somebody's trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them," Bush said in response to a question about the program, the details of which were first reported in yesterday's Washington Post.

But Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said U.S. troops would not cross Iraq's border with Iran under the program, and the president said he is still committed to resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear program diplomatically.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that U.S. troops must defend themselves in Iraq but that the president needs congressional approval for any program that could "escalate this conflict" with Iran. Reid said Bush should be engaged in direct diplomacy with Iran and other countries in the region to avoid a widening conflict, rather than "sending battle carrier groups" to sit off the Iranian coast.

Last fall, Bush gave the military secret authorization to kill or capture members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, including members of a Guard unit known as the Quds Force, and any Iranian intelligence operatives suspected of arming or supporting Shiite militias in Iraq.

The policy is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But the policy has attracted some influential skeptics inside the Bush administration and the intelligence community who are concerned that Iran could respond with escalation. The director of the CIA, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, counseled the president to consider that Iran could undertake its own program to kill or kidnap U.S. personnel in Iraq or neighboring Afghanistan.

Bush said it is "not accurate" he wants to widen a confrontation with Iran. "We're going to continue to protect ourselves in Iraq and at the same time work to solve their problems with Iran diplomatically, and I believe we can succeed. The choice is the Iranian government's choice," he said at a news conference.

The president said his administration is already making good progress on the diplomatic front, citing a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Iran to halt much of its nuclear program and return to negotiations. Iran has rejected that.

Yesterday, the director of the U.N. inspection agency that is monitoring Iran's nuclear program said Tehran plans to significantly expand its nuclear program in the coming months to begin producing large quantities of uranium. Iranian officials say they intend to produce only low-enriched uranium suitable for fueling a nuclear energy program. But the same technology can also produce bomb-grade uranium. Bush said yesterday that the Iranian government plans to build nuclear weapons, though his administration has never offered proof.

In Tehran, the chairman of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said Bush's policy amounts to "terrorist" action that violates international law.

"Such a measure illustrates the failure of the U.S.'s new strategy in Iraq, because it has had no effect in quelling unrests and restoring calm and order and has instead roused intensified reactions in Iraq," Boroujerdi told the Iranian Fars News Agency.

At a Pentagon news conference yesterday, Gates told reporters that U.S. troops were not "simply going to stand by and let people bring sophisticated IEDs into the country that can disable an Abrams tank and give them a free pass." Gates was referring to roadside bombs, or "improvised explosive devices," that U.S. officials have said are built with components brought into Iraq from Iran.

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