By CHRIS BRUMMITT
The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 13, 2007; 4:13 PM
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The top U.S. military officer said Tuesday the discovery that roadside bombs in Iraq contained material made in Iran does not necessarily mean the Iranian government was involved in supplying insurgents.
The comments by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called into question assertions by three senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad on Sunday who said the highest levels of Iranian government were responsible for arming Shiite militants in Iraq with the bombs, blamed for the deaths of more than 170 troops in the U.S.-led coalition.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Monday he was confident the weaponry was coming with the approval of the Iranian government. On Tuesday, Snow said Pace's comments do not conflict with those of the senior military officials or the White House.
Pace told reporters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, that U.S. forces hunting militant networks in Iraq that produced roadside bombs had arrested Iranians and some of the materials used in the devices were made in Iran.
"That does not translate that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this," Pace said. "What it does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers."
On Monday, Pace said he had no firm knowledge that the Iranian government had sanctioned the arming of the insurgents.
"It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit," Pace told the Voice of America.
Iran denied it gave sophisticated weapons to militants to attack U.S. forces.
"Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence. The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran.
When pressed repeatedly about the apparent mixed message, Snow said "We're not on separate pages." He said he had spoken to Pace about it.
"What he was thinking is, are you trying to lay this at the feet of members of the Supreme Governing Council?" Snow said of Pace. "Are you trying to lay this at the feet of particular individuals? The answer is no."
The United States does not have the intelligence that gets that specific and Pace was just being precise in how he answered the question about Iranian government involvement, Snow said.
A military official on Pace's staff said the general stands by his comments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Asked if Pace had vetted the information that went into Sunday's briefing, the official said Pace was aware of what was going to be presented in Baghdad, but that the comment about involvement at the highest levels of Iranian government was not included in the material Pace was given.
The Joint Chiefs chairman is the senior military adviser to the president, but he commands no troops and is not in the chain of command that runs from the president to the secretary of defense to commanders in the field.
The U.S. accusations against Iran have also drawn in an Austrian arms company.
Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Tuesday that American troops have recovered more than 100 "Steyr .50 HS" rifles in Iraq, part of an Austrian consignment of 800 such weapons delivered to Iran over American protests that they could be given to insurgents.
The Austrian government approved the sale of the rifles, made by precision weapons maker Steyr Mannlicher GmbH, after it concluded in 2004 that they would be used to fight narcotics smugglers.
"We checked the proposal very thoroughly," Austrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Astrid Harz said, noting that the situation in Iraq and the region in 2003-2004 was very different than it is now.
"What happened to the weapons then is the responsibility of the Iranians," Harz said.
Franz Holzschuh, Steyr's CEO, said the company had not officially been contacted by anyone to verify the serial numbers on the rifles. He said there was a possibility the weapons were reproductions and that there were "thousands" of these in circulation.
"Fact is, we never delivered to Iraq," he said.
U.S. officials could not confirm the validity of the report, said William Wanlund, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria.
"Obviously, if the reports are true, it would be profoundly disturbing," he said.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington, Raphael G. Satter in London and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.