Wednesday, June 13, 2007

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tied Iran’s government to large shipments of weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and said yesterday that such quantities were unlikely without Tehran’s knowledge.

Mr. Gates’ comments, following accusations by a State Department official, were the strongest yet by a Cabinet secretary about Iran’s support of the terrorist group in Afghanistan.

Basing his conclusions on new intelligence, Mr. Gates said “given the quantities [of weapons] that we’re seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it’s taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government.”

He said that the latest information indicates a “fairly substantial flow of weapons” is crossing into Afghanistan.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told CNN yesterday that “there’s irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this.”

“It’s certainly coming from the government of Iran,” he said. “It’s coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps command, which is a basic unit of the Iranian government.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters “it certainly is hard to believe that the Iranian government isn’t involved in some way, shape or form in this.”

Mr. Gates and other defense officials would not go as far as Mr. Burns did. The Pentagon chief also said he was not as certain about the link to Iran’s Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants.

In April, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed that Iranian-made weapons intended for Taliban insurgents were intercepted by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Gen. Pace said at the time it was not clear which Iranian entity was responsible for the arms, which included mortars and C-4 plastic explosives.

Mr. Gates made his comments to reporters during a visit to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He stopped at the base to visit injured troops and awarded six Purple Heart medals to wounded service members at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

The secretary then went to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

Mr. Gates said he will press allies for more troops, trainers and equipment for Afghanistan.

He has been frustrated by NATO members’ slow progress in meeting commitments in Afghanistan. But he said yesterday several countries recently indicated a willingness to increase the size of their force in Afghanistan or extend the length of their stay.

In February and again in April, Mr. Gates exhorted NATO allies to bolster their troop commitments in Afghanistan so the alliance could carry out its own offensive against the Taliban and pre-empt what has been an annual spring increase in insurgent attacks.

That offensive got under way with the aid of additional U.S. troops. The United States currently has 26,000 troops in Afghanistan, including about 14,000 in the NATO-led force.

During a visit to Afghanistan this month, Mr. Gates said NATO’s push was making progress. But he said Iranian weapons, responsible for widespread violence and U.S. troop casualties in Iraq, increasingly were showing up in Afghanistan.

In particular, NATO officials said they have found armor-piercing roadside bombs — known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs — in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

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