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U.S.-Iran Tensions Could Trigger War

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By JIM KRANE
The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; 8:16 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Citing Iranian involvement with Iraqi militias and Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration has shifted to offense in its confrontation with Iran _ building up the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf and promising more aggressive moves against Iranian operatives in Iraq and Lebanon.

The behind-the-scenes struggle between the two nations could explode into open warfare over a single misstep, analysts and U.S. military officials warn.

Iraq has become a proxy battleground between Washington and Tehran, which is challenging _ at least rhetorically _ America's dominance of the Gulf. That has worried even Iraq's U.S.-backed Shiite prime minister, who _ in a reflection of Iraq's complexity _ also has close ties to Iran.

Iran and the United States are already sparring on the ground.

On Jan. 20, militants kidnapped and killed four American soldiers in a raid in Karbala, and a fifth was killed in the firefight. A U.S. defense official said one possibility under study is that Iranian agents either executed or masterminded the attack, a suspicion based on the sophisticated and unusual methods used in the attack, including weapons and uniforms that may have been American.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.

There has been speculation that the Karbala assault may have been in retaliation for the arrest of five Iranians by U.S. troops in northern Iraq.

Those five Iranians, who were arrested in the northern city of Irbil, included two members of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard force that provides weapons, training and other support to Shiite militants in the Middle East, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last week. Iraqi and Iranian officials maintain the five were diplomats.

Since the Karbala raid, U.S. saber-rattling has intensified. President Bush said this week that U.S. forces in Iraq would take action against Iranian operatives in the country, while insisting he had no intention of attacking Iran.

"If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly," Bush told National Public Radio.

Although little evidence has been made public, U.S. officials have long insisted that Iran was supplying weapons and training to Shiite militias in Iraq, including some that have killed American troops.

The No. 2 U.S. general in Iraq told USA Today in an interview published Tuesday that Iran was supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with a variety of powerful weapons, including Katyusha rockets and armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades.


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