US seeks to banish Iran war 'rumor'
by Olivier Knox
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House and the Pentagon are struggling to dispel fears that US President George W. Bush's warnings to Syria and Iran over Iraq and a US military buildup in the Gulf had set the stage for war.
"I want to address kind of a rumor, an urban legend that's going around," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in a highly unusual prepared statement at his daily briefing Friday as worry over US-Iran tensions ran high.
"This notion that somehow what the president was announcing was a precursor to planned military action -- a planned war against Iran, that's just not the case," Snow told reporters.
Bush vowed in a speech Wednesday that US forces would "seek out and destroy" any networks funneling weapons or fighters from Syria or Iran into Iraq, and said he had ordered another US aircraft carrier strike group to the region.
A senior US military official said Thursday that the United States planned to keep two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Gulf for months -- the first such deployment since the first year of the Iraq war.
"The second carrier while there will not be just showing force, but will be actively involved in combat operations and providing air support. It will be a flexible, useful tool across the region," the official said.
The Pentagon also announced that an air defense battalion equipped with Patriot missile defense systems will go to the region.
The idea was to reassure regional allies about regional ballistic missile threats -- and Iranian missiles posed the most prominent threat, the official said.
Snow flatly denied that Bush "was trying to prepare the way for war with either country and that there are war preparations underway. There are not."
At the same time, US officials defended a nighttime raid by US forces on an Iranian office in the northern Iraq city of Arbil, saying six Iranians nabbed in the sweep had ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which Washington accuses of fomenting violence in Iraq.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The New York Times, in an interview published Saturday, the raid was conducted under an order from Bush authorizing a military offensive against Iranian operatives in the country.
"There has been a decision to go after these networks," Rice was quoted by the Times as saying before leaving on a trip to the Middle East late Friday.
The tough words and actions, which came as the embattled US president laid out his new war-fighting strategy in Iraq, caused alarm from lawmakers and analysts who saw possible war preparations underway.
Democratic Party Senator Joe Biden warned Rice Thursday that sending US troops across Iran's border would trigger "a constitutional confrontation" between the opposition-held Congress and the White House.
"We will fight that out if the president moves -- I just want the record to show," said Biden, a candidate for his party's 2008 presidential nomination.
On Friday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday that Bush's speech "refers strictly to operations inside the territory inside Iraq -- not crossing the border."
"From a military standpoint, (there is) no need to cross the Iranian border," agreed General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the panel that Iranian have been captured twice in Iraq in operations over the past couple of weeks.
US officials are especially concerned about a new, more deadly kind of improvised explosive device -- the roadside bombs that have killed and maimed so many US troops -- that they say bear Iran's fingerprints.
The new IEDS can pierce the armor of some US tanks and of the Bradley fighting vehicle, Snow told a conservative talk show host on Thursday.
US forces are stepping up effort to stop such weapons at the border "if possible," but also looking to disrupt supply lines that run from Iran to Baghdad and Syria to volatile al-Anbar province, Snow told AFP by telephone.
They are also raiding "safe houses" for militants, cracking down on their finance networks, and hunting buried stockpiles of weapons, he said.
The Syrian Embassy in Washington renewed its assurances Friday that it was cooperating with Iraq on strengthening security along their mutual border, but accused the United States of failing to follow suit.
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