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Iran Top Threat To Iraq, U.S. Says

Interrogations of four leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force captured in Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007 have also bolstered U.S. conclusions that portions of Sadr's militia are directed from Tehran.

Despite earlier indications that Iranian backing for Iraqi armed groups and the flow of Iranian arms have waned, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that "this action in Basra was very convincing that indeed they haven't." Basra "gave us much more insight into their involvement in many activities."

Gates, who appeared with Mullen at a Pentagon news conference, said of Iran: "We are going to be as aggressive as we possibly can be inside Iraq in trying to counter their efforts." Iraqi security operations in Basra, he said, have been "a real eye-opener" for Maliki's government.

Petraeus told Congress that Maliki had launched the offensive hastily and with inadequate preparation, leading to a standoff and the need to call in U.S. air support. During the first days of the Basra operation, U.S. officials were sharply critical of Maliki's timing and performance; some worried that the attack against Sadr forces was less an offensive against what he called "criminals" in Basra than it was an attempt to win political advantage over a rival Shiite group before upcoming elections.

Iran's brokering of a tentative cease-fire among Shiite political groups and the militia in Tehran added to U.S. consternation.

"The importance of Iranian influence in facilitating the discussion between different political factions was of significant importance," Petraeus told Pentagon reporters yesterday. Administration officials worried that Iran appeared in control of events in Iraq, while the United States seemed weak and uninformed.

But more recently, U.S. officials have seen a possible advantage in the situation. Maliki's willingness to go after fellow Shiites attracted support from other political groups in Iraq, including Sunnis and Kurds, that have long been suspicious of his sectarian leanings. It also gave Washington a talking point to use with Sunni Arab governments in the region that have shunned him. "It's an opportunity to make him look better inside Iraq and to make a better argument to the Arabs," an official said.

The administration has long tried in vain to build Arab diplomatic and economic support for the Iraqi government. But the Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, consider Shiite Iran a competitor for regional dominance and have rejected Maliki as "a stooge for Tehran," as one U.S. official called him.

"The Saudis appear to feel that the current Iraqi government is pretty much in thrall to Iran," said a State Department official involved in Middle East policy. The administration's hope, "in the wake of Maliki's decisions on Basra," the official said, "is that the Saudis will take a step back and take another look."

In a news conference Thursday, Crocker dismissed Arab concerns about a recent visit to Baghdad by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "It's not the fact of the Ahmadinejad visit, but the absence of visits by other neighbors that it's important to focus on. There hasn't been a single visit, even by an Arab cabinet minister, to Baghdad. As Iraq grapples with the challenges Iran is posing, it could certainly do with some Arab support."

After consultations with Crocker and Petraeus this week, Bush cut short their Washington visit and dispatched them to Riyadh. During a luncheon at The Washington Post, Crocker said that at a White House meeting Thursday morning, they "reviewed where we are in Iraq."

The message to the Saudis, he said, "is going to be . . . it is time, more than time, for the Arab states to step forward and engage constructively with Iraq. Get their embassies open, get ambassadors on the ground, consider visits, implement debt relief, treat Iraq like the country it is, which is a central part of the Arab world."

Staff writers Peter Baker and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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