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Bush: Iran May Be Behind Crisis

Newsmax | July 18 2006

President George W. Bush believes suspicions of Iran's involvement in the escalating Middle East violence are legitimate, he tells Newsweek in an exclusive interview. "There's a lot of people who believe that the Iranians are trying to exert more and more influence over the entire region and the use of Hizbullah is to create more and more chaos to advance their strategy," says Bush in Newsweek's July 24 cover story "Meltdown" (on newsstands Monday, July 17).

He called that "a theory that's got some legs to it as far as I'm concerned."

One aim of "those who perpetuate violence," said Bush, would be to disrupt the international consensus against Iran's nuclear-enrichment program. The second part of the Iranian strategy, Bush suggested, would be to "create conditions such that moderate governments tend to step back in fear, and the vacuum would then be filled by the proponents of an aggressive ideology."

In this week's cover story, Middle East Regional Editor Christopher Dickey, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Kevin Peraino and Middle East Correspondent Babak Dehghanpisheh look at how Iran is using its influence to wage a stealthy war against Israel and America and assess the extent of its ties to some of the key players in the current conflict.

Included in their reporting:

Hizbullah: "There are very clear fingerprints of Iranian involvement," Israeli Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan tells Newsweek regarding Hizbullah's attack against an Israeli warship off the coast of Lebanon. Even so, the officer admitted, "whether it was operated by Iran, I can't confirm."
Other senior Israelis were less cautious in their claims. Former Mossad director Danny Yatom says Iranians have been launching Hizbullah's longer-range rockets, like the ones that hit the Israeli port city of Haifa last week. "The finger that pulled the trigger was an Iranian finger," he declares-although U.S. and British intelligence sources say they doubt it.

The Palestinians: Jordanian intelligence sources recall that by 1997 the Amman government was arresting and interrogating Hamas members who had received, in the words of one veteran security officer, "religious, military, counterinterrogation and even intelligence training in Iran."

Also, after the second intifada against Israel began in 2000, the Israelis intercepted boatloads of arms sent from Iran or through Hizbullah to Palestinian guerrilla groups. The last ship, intercepted in 2003, was a fishing trawler carrying not only munitions and manuals from Lebanon to Gaza, but a Hizbullah bomb-maker as well.

The Syrians: Last month Damascus and Tehran signed a military agreement to establish a "joint front against Israel." The pact includes a commitment promising unrestricted passage through Syria for Iranian arms shipments to Hizbullah.

The Iraqis: Residents of Basra report that members of the Iranian intelligence service operate openly in their city's streets. Iranian agents are said to have infiltrated the militias, the political parties and the Iraqi security services. U.S. officials believe that Iran gave Iraqi insurgents know-how to build the shaped-charge IEDs that have been so effective in attacking Coalition forces-a technique perfected by Hizbullah guerrillas against the Israelis.
Also, despite ideological differences, Tehran supports Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, which has been repeatedly linked to ferocious death-squad killings.

"I used to fight for free," a former member of Sadr's forces tells Newsweek, "but today the Mahdi Army receives millions of dollars every month from Iran in exchange for carrying out the Iranian agenda."

Elsewhere in the cover package, Senior Editor Michael Hirsh reports that, as hostilities escalated in the Middle East, the president, aboard Air Force One, made a round of phone calls to Arab allies, mainly Egypt and Jordan, pleading the case that Hizbullah's breach of the border was a clear violation of international law.

Bush wanted the Arab leaders to know that he was urging Israel to avoid any action that would topple the Lebanese government-and allow Syria to take back control of its neighbor.

But in return he urged them to pressure Hizbullah at an emergency Arab League summit in Cairo.

In an exclusive interview with Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe, Bush tells Newsweek that his message to the Arab leaders was: "Let's make sure this meeting is not the usual condemnation of Israel, because if that's the case it obscures the real culprit" -- Hizbullah and Hamas.

Hirsh also reports that Bush's team was taken off guard by the sudden crisis. The two top U.S. Mideast envoys -- David Welch and Elliott Abrams -- were in the region when hostilities began. But they had been reassured by Lebanese contacts that Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader, didn't plan to "stir things up" while Hamas and Israel contended over a kidnapped Israeli corporal, according to a senior U.S. diplomat.

"You had six and a half years of, if not calm, basically a stable deterrence between Hizbullah and Israel," the official says. "I did not expect this at all."

Now, the president must watch and hope while his whole Mideast legacy-his goal of transforming a region that is the primary source for Islamist terrorism-stands at risk.

One important part of the U.S. strategy, says Welch, is to prevent Nasrallah from turning his would-be alliance with Hamas over captured Israeli prisoners into a united front, with Iran and Syria behind him. (Just before Hizbullah attacked, Hamas and Israel were close to prisoner exchange deal, brokered by Egypt. Cairo later complained privately to the Americans that it believed Nasrallah, Iran and Syria pressured Hamas to back out.) "It's to make sure we don't give the Iranians and Mr. Nasrallah, along with his subcontractor, Khaled Meshaal [the exiled Hamas leader in Syria], what they want, which is to link the two things," says Welch. "I don't know if that'll be possible or not, but it should be. Gaza should be addressed and solved on its merit."



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