Report: US adopts new lethal strategy against Iranian agents in Iraq

The White House has reportedly authorized US troops in Iraq to kill or capture Iranian operatives, as part of a new aggressive strategy designed to slow the growing influence of Iran with its neighbor. The Washington Post reports that for a year now - according to informed government and counterterrorism officials - US troops have been secretly detaining Iranian agents for three or four days, and then releasing them, in a " catch and release" policy that was designed not to increase tensions with Iran, but still intimidate its agents in Iraq.

Last summer, however, senior administration officials decided that a more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran's regional influence grew and US efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be failing. The country's nuclear work was advancing, US allies were resisting robust sanctions against the Tehran government, and Iran was aggravating sectarian violence in Iraq.

"There were no costs for the Iranians," said one senior administration official. "They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending over backwards not to fight back."

The Post reported that while intelligence officials say there is "no evidence the Iranians have directly attacked U.S. troops in Iraq," there are 150 Iranian intelligence officers, plus members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Command, in the country at any one time. The article also says that although the military command has not "exercised the option" to kill any Iranians yet, the Bush administration has been "urging" the use of this new authority.

The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday that outgoing US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told journalists that he would soon release proof of Iranian interference in Iraq. Mr. Khalilzad said information was gathered from Iranians detained in Baghdad, and five others who were arrested in the northern city of Kirkuk, Jan. 11. He said the presentation is also intended to be a response to the Iranian government's public "challenge" this week for the US to produce evidence showing its charges are correct.

In Iran itself, firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be in trouble with the ruling mullahs, in part because his bellicose talk has alienated many Muslims. The Age of Melbourne, Australia reports that the pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad to drop his confrontational approach with the West has intensified after the country's supreme ruler cancelled a meeting with the president over Iran's nuclear program.

It is the first time that [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] has refused to meet Mr Ahmadinejad since the former Revolutionary Guard commander was elected President in 2005 and is a further indication of growing unrest within Iran over his hardline policies.

"It is a clear indication that the cracks are starting to appear in the highest echelons of the Iranian regime," said a senior Bush Administration official with responsibility for monitoring Iran. "If the country's leading religious figure is not talking to the political leadership, then obviously something is going seriously wrong."

Deutsche-Presse-Agentur reports that Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani also called for moderation. He called for officials to adopt a " wiser rhetoric" in its dispute with the West over nuclear technology.

'The rhetoric should be adopted in a wiser way as the current situation is anything but normal,' the cleric said at the Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran.

Rafsanjani was referring to the harsh rhetoric used by [Ahmadinejad] within the context of the nuclear dispute such as terming the United Nations Security Council resolution 1737 as 'just a piece of torn paper.'

Rafsanjani said that while the threats of sanctions and military attacks on Iran may only be psychological war, the nuclear policy should be still be followed in a rational way.

Deutsche-Presse-Agentur also reports that Mr.Rafsanjani, together with former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, have formed a coalition of reformists and moderate conservatives whose purpose is to confront the policies of Ahmadinejad. But Rafsanjani also warned the West against "adventurism," in particular a military attack against Iran.

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