War of Words
Iranian weapons are killing U.S. troops. But when officials blamed Iran's leaders, they fell into a credibility gap
It should have been a pretty straightforward case: Shiite militias are using Iranian weapons to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. On that, the evidence is clear. But when unnamed officials at a hastily convened briefing in Baghdad went a step further, accusing Iranian officials "at the highest levels" of funneling a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb to the Shiite militias, it raised more questions than it answered. For one thing, while the analysts laid out detailed evidence that the armor-piercing "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs, originated in Iran, they offered nothing to support the allegation of Iranian government involvement.
Confusing matters further, several senior U.S. officials-including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, Gen. William Caldwell, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, and even President Bush-made a point of walking back from the accusation. "It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it's clear that materials from Iran are involved," Pace told the Voice of America, "but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."
In Washington and other capitals, many were left questioning the allegations and wondering aloud what, exactly, the Bush administration was hoping to achieve. Was this a prelude to stronger action against Iran or simply a clumsy warning to the regime to stop its support of Shiite militias? The Bush White House ran smack into a growing credibility gap of its own making-a hangover from its handling of intelligence regarding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction before the invasion. It spent the rest of the week trying to explain its intentions.
The controversy's timing was, at best, inconvenient. Last week, the House of Representatives was engaged in a marathon debate over Bush's "surge strategy" (Page 25). Bush struggled to turn the nation's attention back to his long-awaited security crackdown in Baghdad, but at a rare press conference, the questions kept returning to Iran.
Back in Baghdad, military officials insisted the briefing was not a prelude to a new war but a simple matter of force protection. "We need these actions to stop," said Caldwell. But to explain the ill-fated decision to present the Iran intelligence anonymously in Baghdad, some Pentagon officials pointed to what they call the new Powell doctrine: Don't get stuck being the fall guy for the administration's intelligence claims. (This is a nod to the discredited case that former Secretary of State Colin Powell made to the United Nations about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.) "Nobody wants to be Powell. He could have been president, and there was no one more credible in 2002," says a senior Pentagon official, of the decision to withhold the identities of the briefers. "That sends a big signal. Powell is now essentially derided as a tool of the administration."
The briefing, originally planned about two weeks earlier, was delayed by an arduous review process. The intelligence on EFPs was widely vetted in Washington before it was delivered in Baghdad. Senior military and intelligence officials, along with National Security Council aides and the Director of National Intelligence's Iran mission manager, all reviewed the presentation. U.S. News has learned that additional allegations against Tehran were removed because the intelligence was not conclusive enough. Despite all these efforts, the final briefing (hurriedly scheduled after the talking points leaked to a New York Times reporter) left many confused.