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Fissures emerge on Iran's role in Iraq attacks

International Herald Tribune | February 14, 2007
Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon

Bush administration officials, intelligence analysts and some leading Democrats in Congress all agree that a particularly lethal class of roadside bomb is killing American troops at an increasing rate. But fissures have emerged as to whether senior leaders of Iran's government are directly involved in the attacks.

The disagreements have laid bare a fundamental tension in intelligence analysis — how and when to draw firm conclusions from battlefield intelligence about the motivations of foreign leaders.

Based on evidence gathered inside Iraq, American intelligence analysts have concluded that a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps known as the Quds Force is supplying Shiite groups with Iranian-designed weapons, called explosively formed penetrators.

Because the Quds Force, which operates outside Iran, historically has fallen under the command of Iran's senior religious leaders, intelligence agencies have concluded that top leaders in Tehran are directing the attacks. Adding to this view, intelligence officials say, is the assertion by intelligence officials that Iran has been arming and training Shiite militants for several years.

"Based on our understanding of the Iranian system and the history of IRGC operations, the intelligence community assesses that activity this extensive on the part of the Quds Force would not be conducted without approval from top leaders in Iran," a senior intelligence official said, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Intelligence officials have cast this view as an "assessment," a logical inference based on years of studying Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

But some senior American officials are hesitant to make this deductive leap. Twice during his recent trip through Asia, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, broke with military officials in Baghdad and said he was not ready to conclude that Iran's top leaders were behind the attacks.

During a stopover in Jakarta, Pace told reporters that American forces had confirmed that some bomb materials found inside Iraq were made in Iran, but "that does not translate that the Iranian government, per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this," he said, according to The Associated Press.

There is a larger lesson about the way intelligence analysis is carried out. Intelligence officials say that while forensic analysis can determine how a weapon is engineered and where its components are manufactured, the hardest task they face is discerning the strategy and intent of a hostile regime.

Last month, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during an interview that the United States still had far too few intelligence resources inside Iran to draw any conclusions about the intent of senior Iranian leaders.

Still, American intelligence agencies have concluded that over the past year the Iranian government has adopted a new policy of directly confronting the United States inside Iraq. The policy, officials assess, is aimed partly at raising the cost of American involvement in the Middle East, teaching the Bush administration a lesson about the cost of regime change and putting pressure on American forces to leave.

But another reason, they say, is to dissuade the Bush administration from taking a more confrontational policy toward Tehran by sending a message that Iran can ratchet up the attacks on American forces in Iraq.

The assertion that senior Iranian leaders are linked to roadside bombings in Iraq carries echoes of American assessments of the Iran's role in the 1996 bombing of a housing complex in Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 American servicemen.

Government investigators said then that they had collected damning evidence linking Iran to the attack, and in 2001 Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Iranian officials "inspired, supported and supervised members of Saudi Hezbollah" in the attack. But in the end, the American prosecutors stopped short of charging any Iranian officials in the attack.

Regarding the current situation in Iraq, a Pentagon official who supports the allegations of Iranian activity in Iraq sought to dispel the notion that the analysis of American intelligence agencies and the views of the nation's top military officer were fundamentally at odds.

The official said that intelligence on the extent of Quds Force activity in Iraq suggested that the Iranian operatives had not been freelancing or conducting rogue operations. But while he said that it was reasonable to assume that the Iranian authorities had been aware of the Quds Force operations, he said it was not clear what level of the Iranian government was involved.

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