By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 12, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 11 -- Senior U.S. military officials in Iraq sought Sunday to link Iran to deadly armor-piercing explosives and other weapons that they said are being used to kill U.S. and Iraqi troops with increasing regularity.
During a long-awaited presentation, held in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, the officials displayed mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and a powerful cylindrical bomb, capable of blasting through an armored Humvee, that they said were manufactured in Iran and supplied to Shiite militias in Iraq for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops.
"Iran is a significant contributor to attacks on coalition forces, and also supports violence against the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people," said a senior defense official, who was joined by a defense analyst and an explosives expert, both also from the military.
The officials said they would speak only on the condition of anonymity, so the explosives expert and the analyst, who would normally not speak to the news media, could provide information directly. The analyst's exact title and full name were not revealed to reporters. The officials released a PowerPoint presentation including photographs of the weaponry, but did not allow media representatives to record, photograph or videotape the briefing or the materials on display.
An official at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad called the U.S. accusations "fabricated" and "baseless."
"We deny such charges. We ask those who are claiming such evidence: Show the documents in public," said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "We cannot compensate for the American failure and fiasco in Iraq. . . . It is not our policy to be involved in any hostile operations against coalition forces here."
The U.S. officials said weapons were smuggled into the country by the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that U.S. officials believe is under the control of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The officials in Baghdad said that Iranians recently detained in Iraq by U.S. forces belong to the Quds Force.
With so much official U.S. buildup about the purported evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq, the briefing was also notable for what was not said or shown. The officials offered no evidence to substantiate allegations that the "highest levels" of the Iranian government had sanctioned support for attacks against U.S. troops. Also, the military briefers were not joined by U.S. diplomats or representatives of the CIA or the office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Although the administration has made many assertions about Iran's nuclear program, its role in Iraq and its ties to groups on the State Department's terrorism list, the U.S. government has never publicly offered evidence proving the allegations. The briefing was the first time during the Bush administration that officials had sought to make a public intelligence case against Iran.
Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed M. Abbawi, said in an interview Sunday that the Iraqi government remains in the dark about the full U.S. investigation into Iranian activities in Iraq. "It is difficult for us here in the diplomatic circles just to accept whatever the American forces say is evidence," he said.
"If they have anything really conclusive, then they should come out and say it openly, then we will pick it up from there and use diplomatic channels" to discuss it with Iran, he said. "The method or the way it's being done should be changed, to have more cooperation with us."
U.S. military officials in Iraq had previously described the use of "explosively shaped charges" to target vehicles, but Sunday's briefing was the first time they displayed pieces of what they called an "explosively formed penetrator" or EFP.
The one such device shown at the briefing was a cylinder of PVC pipe about eight inches long and about six inches in diameter. The officials said the devices are deadly because the explosion sends a slug of malleable metal, often copper, at velocities high enough to penetrate the armor of tanks and Humvees. Their components require precision machining that Iraq has shown no evidence of being able to perform, the officials said.
The first known attack using such weapons in Iraq occurred in May 2004, and the rate of attacks using them has nearly doubled in 2006, the officials said. They have also been used in southern Lebanon, the explosives expert said. The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah receives military support from Iran.
The defense analyst said Iranians used Iraqi smugglers to bring the weapons into Iraq. "The smoking gun of an Iranian standing over an American with a gun, it's never going to happen," he said.
The officials said the weapons are often supplied to what the officials called "rogue" elements of the Mahdi Army, the powerful Shiite militia led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. One official said there was no "widespread involvement" of the Iraqi government in supplying the weaponry.
A group of Iraqis coming into southern Iraq from Iran were detained by Iraqi border forces in 2005, the defense analyst said, and "they had the materials, EFPs and whatnot, on them."
The officials provided further details on the case of two Iranians captured during a December raid on the compound of a leading Shiite politician, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and five Iranians seized in the raid of a liaison office in the northern city of Irbil in January.
The raid at Hakim's compound netted Mohsen Chirazi, whom U.S. officials described as a high-ranking Quds Force operations chief, as well as documents with information about sniper rifles and mortars, the officials said. The senior defense official said that when U.S. officials discussed the allegations with Hakim's representatives, their explanation was that "it is normal for different groups to acquire armaments for protection purposes."
Following protests from Iraqi officials, the U.S. released Chirazi and the other Iranian captured with him. Hakim visited President Bush at the White House in December.
In the January raid of the Iranian liaison office, which provides consular services in Irbil, U.S. forces captured five Iranians. U.S. officials said they were Quds Force operatives who carried no passports and had fake identification cards. At the time of the raid they were trying to alter their appearance by shaving their heads -- U.S. forces found a bag of hair -- and they were flushing documents down a toilet, the officials said. Explosive residue was found on the hands of at least one of the Iranians, they said.
The Iraqi government has called for their release as well. Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has said that the liaison office was operating under the approval of the Kurdish regional government and that Iraq was in the process of formalizing it as a diplomatic consulate.
The weapons displayed for reporters on two tables on Sunday -- rocket-propelled grenades, football-shaped mortar shells, the shaped explosive charge and about 40 tail fins of exploded mortar shells -- showed specific signs of Iranian manufacture, the officials said. The mortar tail fins, for example, were made from a single fused piece of metal, while other countries make mortar shells that have removable parts, the explosives expert said.
Two rocket-propelled grenades, with the markings "P.G. 7-AT-1," were said to be made exclusively in Iran.
The process of the briefing, delayed by more than two weeks, was unusual. President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said in a recent meeting with reporters that the original media presentation had overstated the evidence against Iran and needed to be toned down.
At the Green Zone briefing Sunday, the senior defense official said charts and graphs outlining the scope of attacks with shaped charges had been removed from the presentation by the intelligence community. "The reason we're talking about this right now is the vast increase in the number of EFPs being found," he said. The U.S. forces in Iraq "are not trying to hype this up to be more than it is."
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in New York and special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi in Baghdad contributed to this report.