- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

The top U.S. military officer yesterday said Iranian aid to Iraqi insurgents became “very, very visible” during the recent unrest in Basra, in violation of earlier promises to reduce support for terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing that evidence collected in Iraq shows Iran’s dismissive attitude toward U.S. requests to stop supplying weapons and training to terrorists and insurgents in Iraq.

“The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It’s plainly obvious they have not. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way,” he said. “In these last couple years, you know, that tensions continue to rise, Iran does not respond, and in fact they seem to be ratcheting it up in terms of their support for terrorism.”

The admiral said the fighting in Iraq’s southern oil hub disclosed that Iran had a significant “level of involvement” in the insurgency.

“It became very, very visible in ways that we hadn’t seen before,” he said.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq who was nominated this week to head Central Command and oversee the entire Middle East, is expected to give testimony in the upcoming weeks, at which he will reveal that Iran has not kept its word and continues to supply weapons to insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In that regard, certainly there is an increasing amount of evidence that in fact [Iran] is going in the other direction,” Adm. Mullen said.

A U.S. official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that weapons captured in Basra were Iranian-made and had “recent manufacturing dates” on them.

The official also said it is “very well-known that Iran has direct ties to a number of groups operating in Basra” and noted that Iran’s Shi’ite-led government has an obvious interest in seeing a Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

Forces led by anti-American cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought Iraqi forces for days in Basra last month. There are an estimated 60,000 fighters in the Madhi Army, with at least 5,000 thought to be highly trained commandos. The group is said to be gaining strength after its strong fight in Basra and in Sadr City, a mainly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad. The sheik himself is widely thought to be in Iran.

Adm. Mullen said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, or Quds Forces, and the Iranian government present an “increasingly lethal and malign influence,” about which he is “extremely concerned.” Iran’s Quds Forces were established in the 1980s and, contrary to Iran’s long-standing claims that it is a volunteer force outside its control, actually reports directly to Iran’s top leadership.

He also alluded to Iraqi Shi’ite militias receiving training across the border in Iran.

He said that while U.S. military officials don’t have a “smoking gun” to prove Tehran’s top leaders are involved, it’s hardly likely that “there isn’t knowledge there as well.”

Adm. Mullen said that Iran continues “to train Iraqis in Iran to come back and fight Americans and the coalition” and that Iran continues “to broadly support terrorists in other parts of the region, whether it’s Hezbollah or Hamas, and in fact, we’re seeing some evidence that they’re supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

As the Joint Chiefs head was briefing reporters, the Navy revealed that a cargo ship hired by the U.S. military fired warning shots when boats suspected to be Iranian came into its vicinity. The incident occurred Thursday when two unidentified boats approached the Westward Venture cargo ship in international waters, U.S. Defense officials said.

When the small boats failed to respond to a warning flare, the Venture’s onboard security team fired short rounds of machine-gun and rifle fire as another warning.

Thursday’s incident reflects the growing tension between Iran and the United States and what some U.S. officials and scholars are stating is a proxy war between the two nations.

Adm. Mullen warned the Islamic republic that while he’d prefer to handle the situation with international diplomacy and economic methods than with force, the U.S. retains significant military options, though he would not elaborate.

“There are planning activities which occur routinely … those change over time, depending on the circumstances. When I say I don’t want to take any military options off the table, that certainly more than implies that we have military options,” Adm. Mullen told reporters.

He also warned Tehran not to assume the U.S. is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to act against them.

“It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability,” he added.

According to a report this week from the Associated Press, Sheik al-Sadr is considering setting aside political ambitions and restarting a full-scale war against U.S.-led forces — a shift that may reflect Iranian influence on the young cleric and could open the way for a shadow Shi’ite state in Iraq protected by his Mahdi Army.

A possible breakaway state — described to the Associated Press by Shi’ite lawmakers and politicians — would represent the ultimate rebuke against the Iraqi government’s Basra attacks and its pressure on Sheik al-Sadr to renounce and disband his militia. The move will give Sheik al-Sadr liberty to establish a parallel state with its own militia and social services along the lines of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shi’ite group founded with Iran’s help in the 1980s.

This article is based part on wire service reports.

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