Bush backs off key charge against Iran
by Olivier Knox
WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President George W. Bush said he was unsure whether top Iranian leaders were behind arms shipments to anti-US fighters in Iraq, undercutting a volatile US charge levelled just days ago.
But he said there was no doubt that the elite Al-Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps was behind powerful new improvised explosive devices (IEDS) killing US soldiers in Iraq and vowed he would "do something about it."
"Whether (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad ordered the Qods Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there," Bush told his first press conference since December 20.
Bush, who also dismissed as "preposterous" any suggestion that Washington was fabricating charges against Tehran, ruled out direct bilateral talks for now with the Islamic republic.
"If I thought we could achieve success, I would sit down. But I don't think we can achieve success right now," he said, stressing that he believed the ongoing multilateral approach to Iran's nuclear programs was paying off.
"That's a more effective way of convincing the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions," he said. "And I believe we are making good progress toward solving this issue peacefully."
"If they want us at the table, we're more than willing to come, but there must be a verifiable suspension of this weapons program that is causing such grave concern," he said. Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Three days after anonymous US officials in Baghdad told a roomful of reporters that "the senior levels of the Iranian government" had approved weapons shipments to Iraqi fighters, Bush said he could not vouch for it.
"I can say with certainty that the Qods force, a part of the Iranian government, has provided these sophisticated IEDs that have harmed our troops," he said.
"I do not know whether or not the Qods force was ordered from the top echelons of government. But my point is what's worse -- them ordering it and it happening, or them not ordering it and it happening?
His comments came after the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, cast doubt on the allegation that the highest levels of Iran's government were directing the weapons flows.
Pace told Voice of America radio that the explosives were made in Iran but added: "What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se, knows about this."
Pace's apparent break with the briefing in Baghdad added fuel to criticisms that the Bush administration was exaggerating the case against Iran and recalled the bitter debate over the flawed case for invading Iraq.
"The idea that somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous," countered Bush.
"When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq, we will deal with them. If we find agents who are moving these devices into Iraq, we will deal with them," said the US president.
"We know they're there, we know they're provided by the Qods force. We know the Qods force is a part of the Iranian government. I don't think we know who picked up the phone and said to the Qods force, go do this, but we know it's a vital part of the Iranian government," said Bush.
The US president spoke hours after the US military in Baghdad formally repeated the charges made at the weekend briefing, where officials spoke on condition that they not be named and recording devices were banned.
Major General William Caldwell repeated the bulk of the charges -- but backtracked from Sunday's claim that the shipments initiated at "the highest level" of the Iranian government, calling that an analysts' "inference".
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