Jim Krane and Robert H. Reid – Associated Press via Liberty Forum Feb 1, 2007
Citing Iranian involvement with Iraqi militias and Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration has shifted to offense in its confrontation with Iran – building up the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf and promising more aggressive moves against Iranian operatives in Iraq and Lebanon.
The behind-the-scenes struggle could explode into open warfare over a single misstep, analysts and U.S. military officials warn.
Iraq has become a proxy battleground between the United States and Iran, which is challenging – at least rhetorically – the United States' dominance of the gulf. That has worried even Iraq's U.S.-backed Shi'ite prime minister, who also has close ties to Iran.
Iran and the United States already are sparring on the ground. On Jan. 20, militants kidnapped and killed four U.S. soldiers in a raid in Karbala, and a fifth American was killed in the firefight. The attack was so well planned and executed that Iraqi officials suspect Iran may have helped Shi'ite militiamen carry it out, perhaps in retaliation for the arrest of five Iranians by U.S. troops in northern Iraq.
Those five Iranians, who were arrested in the city of Irbil, included two members of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard force that provides weapons, training and other support to Shi'ite militants in the Middle East, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last week. Iraqi and Iranian officials maintain the five were diplomats.
President George W. Bush said this week that U.S. forces would take action against Iranian operatives in Iraq, while insisting he had no intention of attacking Iran.
The No. 2 U.S. general in Iraq told USA Today in an interview published Tuesday that Iran was supplying Iraqi Shi'ite militias with a variety of powerful weapons, including Katyusha rockets and armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades.
"We have weapons that we know through serial numbers ... trace back to Iran," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said.
The Air Force is considering more forceful patrols on the Iraqi side of the border with Iran to counter the smuggling of weapons and bomb supplies, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing senior Pentagon officials.
The United States also is building up its military presence in the gulf in what it says is a show of strength directed at Iran. A second aircraft carrier is heading for the region, and Patriot missile batteries are being deployed.
Since Bush announced his new Iraq strategy in early January, Iranian officials have raised the alarm repeatedly that the United States intends to attack. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran is "ready for anything."
Last week, a newspaper threatened retaliation for any U.S. military action – including stopping oil traffic through the gulf's strategic Straits of Hormuz and attacks on U.S. interests. The top editor of the Kayhan daily warned Iran will turn the Middle East into "hell" for the United States and Israel if the United States attacks.
Iran and the United States also are in dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The United States accuses Iran of secretly developing atomic weapons – an allegation Iran denies. Its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment prompted the United Nations Security Council to impose limited economic sanctions.
The United States also has beefed up support for Lebanon's government in its power struggle with Hizballah, a Shi'ite militia that the United States accuses of acting in Iran's interests.
The war of words has raised fears in Congress that the United States and Iran are drifting toward armed conflict at a time when the United States is struggling against determined foes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It also has unnerved the Iraqi government, many of whose members have close ties to Iran.
"We have told the Iranians and the Americans, 'We know that you have a problem with each other, but we're asking you, please, solve your problems outside of Iraq,' " Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, told CNN on Wednesday.
In Tehran, political analyst Hermidas Bavand said U.S. force increases were leading many Iranians to believe the United States is looking to pick a fight.
"It's an extremely dangerous situation," Bavand said. "I don't think Tehran wants war under any circumstances. But there might be an accidental event that could escalate into a large confrontation.
Last updated 03/02/2007