U.S. says Iran helped Iraqis plan raid that killed five GI's
BAGHDAD: Agents of Iran helped plan a January raid in Shiite holy city of Karbala in Iraq in which five American soldiers were killed by Islamic militants, an American military spokesman said Monday. The charge was the most specific allegation of Iranian involvement in an attack that killed American troops, at a time of rising tensions with Iran over its role in Iraq and its nuclear program.
Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, the military spokesman here, said an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a force under the control of Iran's most powerful religious leaders, had used veterans of the Lebanese Islamic militia group Hezbollah as a "proxy" to train, arm and plan attacks by an array of Shiite militant cells in Iraq.
One high-ranking Hezbollah commander from Lebanon was captured in Basra in March, and after weeks of pretending that he could not hear or speak, he gave American interrogators details of the Iranian role, the general said.
Earlier briefings by the American command on accusations about an Iranian role focused on technical analyses of arms said to have been supplied by Iran to Shiite militias in Iraq, including explosively formed penetrators, an exceptionally lethal form of bomb responsible for killing 170 American soldiers as of February and a substantial number since.
But some critics said the evidence was circumstantial and charged that the Americans appeared to be offering a new rationale for maintaining or increasing the military commitment in Iraq.
The briefings on Monday shifted the focus from the weapons to what Bergner described as a network of secret militant cells armed, financed and directed by the Iranians. He said the information was drawn from interrogations of three men captured in a raid in Basra on May 20, and from documents found with them.
He identified the three men by name and said one was a Lebanese Hezbollah agent and two were Iraqi Shiites working as agents for the Quds Force, the elite Iranian unit. He did not present transcripts of the interrogations or the seized documents for inspection. The general said the captured men had been deeply involved in organizing Iranian-backed militia cells, including the one that killed the Americans.
It was the first time that the United States had charged that Iranian officials had helped plan operations against American troops in Iraq and had advance knowledge of a specific attack that led to the death of American soldiers. In effect, the United States is charging that Iran has been engaged in a proxy war against American, British and Iraqi forces here in an effort to shore up Iranian Shiite militant allies in Iraq and to raise the cost of the American military presence here.
Bergner, seemingly keen to avoid a renewal of the criticism that the American command has used the allegations of Iranian interference here to lend momentum to the Bush administration's war policy, declined to draw any broader political implications, although he did say that American intelligence indicated that "the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity."
A statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected the American claims, describing them as "fabricated and ridiculous."
Much of the briefing centered on the captured Hezbollah agent, known to the American command as "Hamid the Mute" because Hamid was part of the false name he gave after his capture and because of the weeks he spent after his capture pretending that he could not speak or hear. The man, identified as Ali Musa Daqduq, was said by Bergner to be a Lebanese citizen with a 24-year history in Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in southern Lebanon.
Bergner said Daqduq had previously commanded a Hezbollah special operations unit and "coordinated protection" for Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader. The general said Daqduq had been sent by Hezbollah to Iran in 2005 with orders to work with the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to train "Iraqi extremists."
In the past year, the general said, Daqduq made four trips to Iraq, to report on the training and operations of underground militia cells, and to organize them in ways that mirrored Hezbollah's structure.
"He also helped the Quds Force in training Iraqis inside Iran," the general said, taking groups of 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time to three camps in the vicinity of Tehran and instructing them in the use of shaped charges, mortars, rockets and "intelligence, sniper and kidnapping operations."
The general said the cells had been responsible for much violence. "I think the reality of this is that they're killing American forces, they're killing Iraqis, they're killing Iraqi security forces, and they are disrupting the stability in Iraq," he said.
Another senior American official said Daqduq had pretended to be unable to hear or speak, probably to disguise his Lebanese-accented Arabic. Later, the official said, he admitted in notes to his interrogators that he could hear. Finally, he passed a note saying that he could speak but that he would not do so until May 1. Presumably, the temporary silence was intended to give others a chance to get away. On that day, the official said, "he did talk, and he's been quite talkative ever since."
The official said the shift had been achieved without harming Daqduq. "We don't torture," the official said. "We follow scrupulously the interrogation techniques in the army's new field manual, which forbids torture, and has the force of law."
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Hosseini Ali Hosseini, said the American attempt to blame the Quds Force for instigating violence in Iraq was part of a wider pattern of baseless allegations. "It has been four and a half years that U.S. officials have sought to cover up the dreadful situation in Iraq, which is a result of their mistakes and wrong strategies, by denigration and blaming others," he said.
When the Karbala attack was carried out on Jan. 20, American and Iraqi officials said it had been meticulously planned. The attackers carried forged identity cards, wore American-style uniforms and drove vehicles of a kind used by Americans here. One American was killed at the start of the raid, and the other Americans were captured, then shot to death and dumped beside the road.
Some officials speculated at the time that the goal of the raid might have been to exchange the Americans for Iranian officials American forces had seized in Iraq and identified as members of the Quds Force, not diplomats as the Iranians claimed. Bergner said the evidence of Iranian involvement in the Karbala killings came from interrogations of Qais Khazali, an Iraqi Shiite who oversaw operations of the Iranian-supported cells in Iraq that were under the direction of Daqduq, and who was seized in the same raid, along with another militant, Laith Khazali, his brother.
Along with the three men, the Americans also seized a 22-page document they had on the Karbala attack, Bergner said. That document, he said, showed that the Quds Force had gathered detailed information on the activities of American soldiers in Karbala, including shift changes and the defenses at the site where they were seized. The general said other information about attacks by the Iranian-supported groups came from Daqduq's personal journal and other documents.
"Both Ali Musa Daqduq and Qais Khazali state that senior leadership within the Quds Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack that killed five coalition soldiers," Bergner said.
American officials said one reason for holding the briefing nearly 15 weeks after capturing the three Quds Force agents was that Shiite officials in Baghdad, reluctant to inflame relations with Iran's ruling Shiite clergy, had resisted having the case against Iran made so publicly. At the same time, a senior American official said, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other Shiites in the government seemed to have been shaken by the evidence of "the nefarious and lethal" Iranian role the American command had uncovered.
Bergner said much of the Iranian activity had centered on ties with groups linked to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia in Iraq that has mounted countless attacks on Americans and has killed thousands of Iraqi Sunnis. The Shiite cleric who founded the Mahdi Army, Moktada al-Sadr, has longstanding ties with Iran and spent months there this year, apparently fearful of arrest, American commanders have said.
The American command has long said that much of the worst violence by Mahdi Army groups appears to have been carried out by "rogue" groups that Sadr does not control. Bergner said the groups under the Quds Force seemed to be in that category.
Another high-ranking American official said that Iranian financing for the Tehran-linked militias — said by Bergner to amount to $750,000 to $3 million a month — had long been channeled through Sadr, and that American intelligence was not clear on whether some or all the money was still to him.
"One of the big questions is, 'Who controls the secret cells, if anyone does?' " the official said. "The fact is, it's hard to tell where the militias end and the secret cells begin. There is a pre-existing relationship between Sadr and the Iranians, but I think the answer is that some of them are out of control."