By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 12, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 11 -- The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq asserted Wednesday that Iranian-made arms, manufactured as recently as last year, have reached Sunni insurgents here, which if true would mark a new development in the four-year-old conflict.
Citing testimony from detainees in U.S. custody, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said Iranian intelligence operatives were backing the Sunni militants inside Iraq while at the same time training Shiite extremists in Iran.
"We have, in fact, found some cases recently where Iranian intelligence services have provided to some Sunni insurgent groups some support," Caldwell told reporters, adding that he was aware of only Shiite extremists being trained inside Iran. Caldwell cited a collection of munitions on a nearby table that he said were made in Iran and found two days ago in a majority-Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.
Khalil Sadati, media adviser for the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, denied his government was backing militant groups inside Iraq. "There's no such thing." Sadati said. "Why don't you ask the Americans why they continue to make accusations without any evidence?"
For months, U.S. officials have alleged that Iranian entities have provided Shiite militias with weapons, including potent roadside bombs the military calls EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, that have killed dozens of U.S. soldiers. Wednesday marked the first time that U.S. officials have asserted that Sunni insurgents were also receiving arms from Iran.
It was unclear what motivation Iran, a Shiite theocracy, would have for backing Sunni insurgents, many of whom are staunchly anti-Iranian and fear the rise of Shiite power in the region. Critics have dismissed the U.S. assertions, saying that evidence provided so far gives no solid proof that Iran has supplied weapons to Iraqi militants.
Wednesday's allegations arrive at a particularly tense period for U.S-Iranian relations. The U.S. military has in custody five Iranian nationals -- Iran calls them diplomats -- who U.S. officials say entered Iraq to foment violence against U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. And an Iranian diplomat who was released from captivity inside Iraq last week asserts that he was tortured by the Central Intelligence Agency. He was abducted by unknown gunmen Feb. 4 on a downtown Baghdad street.
"The CIA had no role in this individual's release or capture. And allegations that he was tortured by the agency are ludicrous," spokesman Mark Mansfield said Wednesday from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Caldwell also painted a mixed picture of the violence in Iraq eight weeks into a security plan intended to quell turmoil in the capital. From January to March, civilian deaths dropped 26 percent in Baghdad, he said. But violence surged in many areas outside the capital, resulting in a rise in civilian deaths across Iraq over the same period. Most of the victims were killed by car bombs or suicide bombers, he said.
From February, when the security plan was launched, to March, the total number of deaths -- civilians, Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops -- rose by 10 percent, he said. "What does this mean? It means that we still have a lot of work to do," Caldwell said.
"The goal of these murderers is to ignite a cycle of violence. They want to murder people of one sect to try to provoke revenge killings, so that this country will be divided and weak," he added.
Also Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for "urgent action" to better protect Iraqi civilians from the violence. The call came as the group released a report on the "deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq."
Regarding the weapons attributed to Iran, Caldwell said an Iraqi man turned up two days ago at a security outpost in the predominantly Sunni al-Jihad neighborhood and tipped off soldiers to the munitions. He directed the soldiers to a house, where they spotted a black Mercedes sedan, Caldwell said. The arms, including mortars and rockets, were inside the car and its trunk, as well as buried on the property. The house was empty, he said.
Several mortar rounds on display at the news conference had markings that read "2006," suggesting they had been manufactured -- and arrived in Iraq -- after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The markings on all the munitions were in English. Maj. Marty Weber, an explosives expert, said countries selling arms on the global market tend to use English lettering.
"The death and violence in Iraq are bad enough without this outside interference," Caldwell said. "Iran and all of Iraq's neighbors really need to respect Iraq's sovereignty and allow the people of this country the time and the space to choose their own future."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.