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US eases tone on Iran's role in Iraq

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•Five US soldiers were abducted and killed in a sophisticated operation Jan. 20 in the Shiite city of Karbala. US military officials in Baghdad suspected the attackers, who wore US-style uniforms, of either being Iranian or benefiting from Iranian training. US military sources said they had never seen so sophisticated an attack from Iraqi insurgents.

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•For more than a year, US armored vehicles, including the M1 Abrams battle tank, have been the target of increasingly powerful and sophisticated weaponry.

Last August, Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero cited "irrefutable" evidence that Iran was providing the technology for advanced explosive devices being used against US forces. In a Pentagon briefing, he said Iran was funding, equipping, and training "Shia extremist groups." But British forces patrolling Iraq's southeastern border with Iran reported last fall encountering more hearsay than evidence of such activity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Iraq, said after the Arbil operation that some of the detained were from the Quds force and that one detainee was a director of operations for the Quds force.

But last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that information he had seen from the Karbala attack was "ambiguous" as to an Iranian role, adding that it was too early in the investigation to be conclusive.

Also last week, Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs, said it was "not possible to say exactly who" was responsible for the Karbala attack.

One issue the Bush administration faces is that it is seen to be focusing on Iran when Iraq's civil war – and Iraqi sectarian violence – is reaching a new intensity. Even the National Intelligence Estimate released last week minimized the Iranian role in Iraq, saying internal factors are more significant contributors to Iraq's instability.

"The involvement of [Iran and Syria] is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics," the report says.

That conclusion mirrors the view of experts like White, who believe Iran is involved in Iraq, but not in any decisive manner. "Yes, I believe the Iranians are doing this, but at a level that doesn't matter very much. Compared to the magnitude of the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence, they are really playing a bit part in all of this," says White, now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Focusing on Iran now would risk suggesting the administration was trying to put up a smoke screen, some observers say. It would also not appear to be the right time to amplify accusations that Shiite Iran is providing material and personnel to target Sunni neighborhoods, given that the horrendous bombings of the last week have all hit Shiite neighborhoods.

As to why the Bush administration is choosing to verbally confront Iran now, White sees three reasons beyond a desire to stop suspected arms supplies. "I suspect they want to push Iran back a little to give the troop surge a slightly better chance of success," he says. "But I also think they are setting up a target to blame for if and when the surge fails. And then it is part of a steady vilifying of Iran, so that if they do go after them over their nuclear program, the US public is that much more prepared for it."