- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday there is solid circumstantial evidence that Iran is supplying insurgents with explosives that are killing U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I think there’s some serial numbers, there may be some markings on some of the projectiles fragments that we found” that trace back to Iran, he told reporters while traveling to Germany for a NATO conference.

The White House and the U.S. command in Baghdad are preparing a report making the case that the regime in Tehran is supporting like-minded Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq. The United States says the aid includes improvised explosive devices, which the Army reports cause 80 percent of all soldier casualties.

The report was put on hold after some White House officials determined the evidence was not strong enough to back up some of its assertions. But they have not backed off the general charge that Iran is indirectly fighting the United States via Iraqi insurgents.

President Bush announced Jan. 10 that the United States would begin targeting Iranian networks working inside Iraq. But officials repeatedly have said they will not strike Iran inside its borders.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a radio interview that aired yesterday that his country has “no interest” in providing weapons to any insurgent group in Iraq.

“But the problem is that the United States has decided on a policy and is trying to find or fabricate evidence if it cannot find one — and I believe it hasn’t been able to find any evidence — in order to substantiate and corroborate that policy,” Mr. Zarif said on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Meanwhile in Iraq, joint Iraqi and American forces continued the new offensive designed to finally quell violence in Baghdad and tip the balance of battle in the coalition’s favor.

The operation calls for three Iraqi brigades and five American ones to join forces in the city during the coming weeks. To date, one Iraqi brigade, at about 60 percent strength, is in the capital city. The second is en route, and a third will deploy later this month.

The first American brigade — the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team — is now in the city. The second of the five is heading to Kuwait. The remaining three are in the United States preparing to deploy.

“So far so good,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “But we’re in the very early days of what will be a very deliberate campaign that will unfold only over several months, and we should not expect quick, easy or dramatic results.”

In previous offensives in Iraq, the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never followed through on U.S. demands to target the Mahdi Army, a militia controlled by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Gen. Lute said things are different this time.

“They said they were going to commit more troops to Baghdad. They have,” he said. “They said they were going to have a no-holds-barred rules of engagement, set of rules of engagement, meaning that no geographic or political — geographic location or political entity would be immune from law and order in Baghdad.”

This week, he said, the al-Maliki government arrested a deputy health minister linked to death squads within the Mahdi Army. He said such action was unthinkable a few months ago.

Gen. Lute provided an update on the rash of American helicopter crashes in Iraq. Six helicopters — four military and two civilian — have gone down in less than three weeks.

The crashes have led to speculation that insurgents have perfected ways to locate and shoot down low-flying choppers, perhaps with shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles.

Gen. Lute said two aircraft were downed while in “close contact” with the enemy. Two others were also downed by groundfire, but not in battle. One crashed after hitting a wire, and the sixth had mechanical problems.

The general said investigations have not yet found a pattern of enemy activity that could explain the four that were shot down.

“It’s a bit too soon to tell,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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