Iran Top Threat To Iraq, U.S. Says

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

Last week's violence in Basra and Baghdad has convinced the Bush administration that actions by Iran, and not al-Qaeda, are the primary threat inside Iraq, and has sparked a broad reassessment of policy in the region, according to senior U.S. officials.

Evidence of an increase in Iranian weapons, training and direction for the Shiite militias that battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces in those two cities has fixed new U.S. attention on what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday called Tehran's "malign" influence, the officials said.

The intensified focus on Iran coincides with diminished emphasis on al-Qaeda in Iraq as the leading justification for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.

In congressional hearings this week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said the U.S. military has driven al-Qaeda from Baghdad, Anbar province and central Iraq, and he depicted the group as now largely concentrated in a reduced territory around the northern city of Mosul.

During their Washington visit, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker barely mentioned al-Qaeda in Iraq but spoke extensively of Iran.

With "al-Qaeda in retreat and disarray" in Iraq, said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, "we see other obstacles that were under the waterline more clearly. . . . The Iranian-armed militias are now the biggest threat to internal order."

Partly in response to advice from Petraeus and Crocker, the administration has initiated an interagency assessment of what is known about Iranian activities and intentions, how to combat them and how to capitalize on them. The review stems from an internal conclusion, following last week's fighting, that the administration lacked a comprehensive understanding and a sophisticated approach.

President Bush reiterated yesterday that if Iran continues to help militias in Iraq, "then we'll deal with them," saying in an interview with ABC News that "we're learning more about their habits and learning more about their routes" for infiltrating or sending equipment.

But he also reaffirmed that he has no desire to go to war with Tehran. Saying that his job is to "solve these issues diplomatically," Bush suggested heightened interest in reaching a solution with other countries. "You can't solve these problems unilaterally. You're going to need a multilateral forum."

Iran has long been seen as a spoiler in Iraq, with such strong ties to all of the major Shiite political and militia groups, including that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that other Arab countries have begun to regard Iraq as almost a client state of Iran.

The recent fighting in Basra, which began when Maliki launched a military offensive against the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, revealed a threat and an opportunity, officials said.

U.S. military officials said that much of the plentiful, high quality weaponry the militia used in Basra and in rocket attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located, was recently manufactured in Iran. At the same time, the militia's improved targeting and tactics indicated stepped-up Iranian training.

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