US unveils tougher line on Iranians in Iraq
by Olivier Knox
WASHINGTON (AFP) - US forces in Iraq are targeting Iranian agents there for capture or killing under a tough new policy aimed at starving sectarian violence of outside support, US and Iraqi officials said.
"It makes sense that if somebody's trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them," US President George W. Bush told reporters.
At the same time, Bush said as he met with Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus, the new commander of US forces in Iraq, it would be wrong to think that such efforts mean a coming war with Iran.
"Some are trying to say that because we're helping ourselves in Iraq by stopping outside influences from killing our soldiers or hurting Iraqi people, that we want to expand this beyond the borders," said Bush.
"That's a presumption that simply is not accurate," he said.
Bush's comments came as US and Iraqi officials confirmed a report in The Washington Post that US forces were now authorized to kill or capture Iranian spies or members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
"If we get information about Iranian agents or networks operating inside of Iraq and actively providing weapons or support to insurgents, we are going to go after them," a senior US official said on condition of anonymity.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said Washington had made clear it fears that Iran was supplying Shiite Iraqi insurgents with technology to make sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack US forces.
"We have every right to go after those Iranian paramilitary intelligence agents engaged in this activity inside Iraq," Burns told reporters.
"The Iranian government needs to know that whether it is the Qods force (of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) or any kind of Iranian organ, we are not going to tolerate American soldiers being targeted in such fashion," he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned "if you are in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, you should consider yourself a target."
"We are not going to simply stand by and let people bring sophisticated IEDs into the country."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN that the policy did not target "legitimate" Iranian visits in Iraq, like diplomatic missions or pilgrimages to holy shrines.
And the anonymous US official dismissed as "not accurate" the Post's report that for more than a year US forces have been secretly holding dozens of suspected Iranian agents for up to four days in a "catch and release" policy designed to intimidate them while avoiding escalation.
Before being released, US forces collected DNA samples from some of the Iranians, took retina scans of others and fingerprinted and photographed all of them, the Post said, citing top US counter-terrorism sources.
In mid-2006, top US government officials concluded they needed to be more confrontational.
"There were no costs for the Iranians," an unnamed senior administration official told the Post. "They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending over backwards not to fight back."
Bush authorized the new "kill or capture" program in the fourth quarter of 2006, the Post reported.
The news came as top US officials said Washington would make public the evidence supporting months of accusations that Iranian agents and networks have been aiding insurgents who target US forces in Iraq.
"There is solid evidence that Iranian agents are involved in these networks and that they are working with individuals and groups in Iraq and that they are being sent there by the Iranian government," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
"In the near future, we are going to try to talk a little bit more in public -- to the extent that we can, because, again, you're dealing with intelligence information -- about what we know of Iranian support for these networks," he added.
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