U.S. Congress Re-Ignites Iraq War Policy Debate

As the US Congress reconvenes this week following a brief recess, the battle over Iraq war policy will soon resume in earnest. Divisions are running deep within the ranks of both the Democrat and Republican ranks, even as antiwar legislators unite across party lines. At the same time, the resurgence of chaos and violence across Iraq will make it more difficult for President Bush and GOP lawmakers to defend the troop surge on the basis that it will succeed in stabilizing the country.

On February 16, seventeen House Republicans crossed the floor to vote in favor of a nonbinding resolution to express disapproval for President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq. The following day, despite a previous failed attempt in the Senate (49 to 47) to debate the war, a second vote in the Senate to advance debate on the resolution passed in the House picked up seven Republican supporters. The final vote of 56 to 34 fell only four votes short of the number needed to launch debate.

The debate will continue with the backdrop of Secretary of State Condoleezaa Rice’s Sunday morning television statement that Congress should not micromanage the Iraq war and recent statements by Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans who are publicly stating they are not ruling out military action against Iran.

Still, this increasing bipartisan opposition to the surge will almost certainly be upstaged by internal factional divisions between Democrats in both houses of Congress as they try to craft binding legislation that will obstruct the surge and begin the withdrawal of troops. Consensus between liberal antiwar Democrats and the party’s more centrist and conservative members will not be easily reached. There are also different legislative approaches being considered by Senate and House Democratic leaders.

Senators Joe Biden (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic Presidential candidate, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, are reportedly drafting legislation to set new limits for the US mission in Iraq. Conditions have changed since the 2002 resolution that authorized the invasion – no weapons of mass destruction have been found and Saddam Hussein has been removed from power. A modified resolution could restrict military operations to pursuing al Qaeda in Iraq and training the Iraqi army and police forces. It might also propose the withdrawal of troops not involved in this narrower mission by March 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will discuss the proposal with fellow Democrats in the Senate this week, to gauge their support. Yet any attempt to challenge President Bush’s powers as commander-in-chief is likely to encounter staunch opposition from Senate Republicans, as well as a swift Presidential veto.

A different kind of approach is being taken by Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. He is proposing legislation that makes the granting of President Bush’s $100 billion war request conditional on new standards being met for troop safety and readiness. This includes adequate training and equipment for troops, as well as one-year breaks between deployments. This could well obstruct the troop surge, while placing President Bush and pro-surge Republicans in the invidious position of having to defend sending under-trained and under-equipped troops into battle.

Yet the proposal has drawn sharp criticism from within the Democratic party, while also taking a pounding from pro-war Republicans. When Mr Murtha announced details of his plan in a February 15 interview with the liberal antiwar web site MoveCongress.org, without first building consensus within the party, he instantly alienated Democratic colleagues who represent conservative electorates. Mr Murtha then made no further attempt to promote the plan either within the party or publicly, which enabled pro-war Republicans to gain momentum with claims that the plan represents a ‘slow bleed’ of support for US troops in Iraq.

The timing of Mr Murtha’s announcement was also criticized by antiwar Republicans anxious to build bipartisan consensus. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a co-sponsor of the anti-surge House resolution that passed on February 16, said that Mr Murtha’s interview had chased off some much-needed Republican support at a critical time. “If he had made his comments after the vote, we could have picked up five to eight more Republicans,” said Mr Jones.

In a letter to Mr Murtha, Mr Jones also said he was concerned that the plan could withhold critical support for the troops in Iraq, “I believe that we must take great care to ensure that any effort to provide for our armed forces not be used as a proxy for resolving larger issues concerning the war in Iraq,” wrote Mr Jones. “Any attempt to starve the war as a way of bringing it to a conclusion, rather than through a serious policy debate about the best way forward in Iraq, would be wrong.”

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, also expressed opposition to any plan that could lead to the under-resourcing of US troops in Iraq, “If this is going to be legislation that’s crafted in such a way that holds back resources from our troops, that is a non-starter, an absolute non-starter.”

However, the antiwar Out of Iraq Caucus, which claims a third of the House Democrats, supports Mr Murtha’s plan as a measure that will achieve de-escalation. They argue that Democrats have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the American voters, whose strong antiwar sentiment swept Democrats into the leadership of both houses of Congress in November. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus, has said, “Congress has the authority, and I know it has the responsibility, to get us out of there. And we should use every means possible.”


Iraq War: Rape, Chemical Warfare and US Helicopters

Chaos gained the upper hand this week in Iraq with a series of developments that threaten to derail the last-ditch security plan launched by US and Iraqi forces less than two weeks ago. Reports are emerging that rape is being used as an instrument of war, that the insurgency’s new strategies include chemical warfare and systematic attacks on US helicopters, and that gunfire and bombings by US troops in al-Anbar province left 26 Iraqi civilians dead.

Rape allegations surfaced this week in which two Sunni women said they were assaulted by Iraqi forces when their homes were searched for weapons and insurgents. A 50 year-old Sunni woman in Tal Afar said three Iraqi soldiers raped her in her home on February 8 while a lieutenant filmed the assault on his mobile phone. A fifth soldier reportedly stopped the rape at gunpoint. Three of the men have confessed and have been referred to judicial authorities.

On al-Jazeera television the woman discussed her allegations with her face covered. When asked why she did not report the attack immediately, she responded, “Who do I complain to? No one allows us to complain.” The sectarian implications of the incident are not yet clear. Shiite politicians have claimed that two of the men are Sunni Arabs, while the acting mayor of Tal Afar has said the men are from southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shiite.

Meanwhile, a 20 year-old Sunni woman alleged that she had been raped on Sunday by three Iraqi policemen at a police garrison, where she was taken after her home in western Baghdad was searched for weapons and insurgents. She said US soldiers rescued her and brought her to a US-run medical facility in Baghdad. General David Petraeus, the US forces commander in Iraq, ordered that any evidence taken be secured and then handed over to the appropriate Iraqi judicial authority, in accordance with US policy.

However, after launching an investigation on Monday evening, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared on Tuesday morning that the woman is a criminal, that her allegations are false and intended to discredit the security operation, and that the policemen had been cleared of any wrongdoing. He added that the ‘distinguished officers’ would be ‘rewarded’, but did not elaborate.

The seemingly superficial investigation has outraged the Sunni minority population, and the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has vowed revenge on the woman’s behalf. In an audio tape entitled “To Your Rescue, Sister” posted on the Internet on Thursday, Abu Ayyub al-Masri said that “more than 300 militants asked to go on martyrdom [suicide] operations in the first 10 hours of hearing the news.”

It is extremely rare for women to report rape in Iraq for fear of being ‘disowned’ or even killed by male relatives desperate to restore the family’s ‘honor’.  In this case, some Iraqi authorities, including Sunnis, have rejected the woman’s claims because she went public with her allegations (her face concealed) on Arabic television.

“What has been said about the woman’s rape seems like a fantasy,” said Aida Osayran, a Sunni member of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, according to the Associated Press. “It is certain that what she says is improper because it is not in our customs and traditions.”

Yet Isobel Coleman, director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said she believes that rape is widespread in Iraq and is being used as an instrument of war.

There is little doubt that the rape allegations, and the provocative manner in which the al-Maliki government has handled the younger woman’s case, have only further fuelled sectarian tensions and undermined confidence in the government.

Meanwhile, the plan to restore order in Iraq has been dealt another devastating blow by a series of explosions across the country using the chemical element chlorine. The first such attack occurred on January 28, when a truck packed with explosives and chlorine was set off in al-Anbar province in western Iraq, killing 12 people. Al-Anbar is the base of al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

This week, two similar attacks confirmed that this is a new tactic of the insurgency. On Tuesday, a bomb attached to a chlorine tanker north of Baghdad exploded, which apparently caused no fatalities but injured 150 villagers. The following day, a pickup truck carrying explosives and chlorine gas cylinders blew up in Baghdad, killing five and leaving 55 people with severe respiratory distress and stinging eyes.

On Thursday, US forces reportedly discovered a chemical factory in Fallujah (another known insurgent stronghold) including 65 propane tanks and an assortment of chemicals. US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that three vehicle bombs were clearly being prepared at the facility. A raft of other weaponry found included mortar rounds, rockets and anti-aircraft shells.

Experts have pointed out that, while the use of chlorine in the recent bombings has dramatically raised the level of fear and chaos, the relatively crude assemblies have actually made the attacks less lethal. Steve Kornguth, director of the biological and chemical defense program at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Associated Press, “They are putting canisters of chlorine on trucks with bombs, which then puncture the canisters and release the chemical. But it hasn’t been very effective because the high temperature created by the bombs oxidizes the chemical, making it less dangerous.”Nevertheless, the use of chemical warfare by insurgents has been deeply unsettling for the local population and US forces determined to restore order.

Meanwhile, eight US helicopters have been brought down by insurgents since January 20, the latest on Wednesday in Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad. The pilot managed to make a ‘hard landing’ without casualties and the crew was quickly rescued by another helicopter. It is believed that insurgents have been studying US flight plans and have acquired more sophisticated weapons enabling them to shoot down the helicopters, wreaking havoc on the US military dependent on the flights in order to transport troops around Iraq. Two suspects have been detained in relation to the latest attack.

The harrowing week was capped off by Friday’s announcement that the US military is now investigating claims that 26 civilians were killed when US forces engaged insurgents in a fierce battle in Ramadi on Wednesday. After intense gunfire and a series of air strikes, twelve insurgents were confirmed dead.

Tony Blair Removing British Troops from Iraq

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to announce today the withdrawal of nearly half the British troops currently deployed in Iraq by the end of the year.

There are currently 7,100 British troops in southern Iraq, mostly in Basra, the country’s second largest city. More than 130 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Mr Blair is expected to confirm in the House of Commons that 1,500 British troops whose tours of duty end in April will not be returning to Iraq and will not be replaced. A further 1,500 troops will return to the UK in December. In anticipation of this major reduction in ground forces, British military officials have relinquished command of the Iraqi army in Basra, who are now taking orders from their Iraqi general in Baghdad.

“The transfer is a significant step toward Iraqi forces taking responsibility for security in the city,” said the British military in a statement.   Political analysts have said that the announcement signals a shift in the relationship between Prime Minister Blair and President George W Bush. The British public have turned with a vengeance on their Prime Minister for backing the US-led invasion – which has blighted Mr Blair’s administration, inflicted severe national and local electoral losses on his Labor Party, and forced his decision to leave office later this year.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told SBS World News, “The coalition has been withering for a long time and I think this gives lie to the fact that this really has become an American war. It’s an American presence, in fact, in an Iraqi civil war, and that’s one of the reasons why the British are desperate to get out … There’s a way in which Tony Blair risked his career for his friendship with George Bush and then he lost it.” During a videoconference on Tuesday morning, Mr Blair discussed his plans with President Bush, who has been quick to hail the development as a “sign of success”. According to The Independent, President Bush said that he was “grateful for the support of the British forces in the past and into the future”. He added, “We want to bring our troops home as well. It’s the model we want to emulate, to turn over more responsibility to Iraqis and bring our troops home.”

Despite the positive spin, there is little doubt that Mr Blair’s announcement comes at an awkward time for the White House, just as a surge of 21,500 additional US troops make their way to Iraq. There has also been a significant additional build-up of US military force in the Persian Gulf, which has raised speculation that the US is planning military strikes on Iran. Since the 2003 US-led invasion, the British have been the staunchest allies of the US in Iraq. There were 46,000 British soldiers in force for the invasion, a number scaled back following the military victory, as the occupation got underway. The British took charge of four mainly Shiite provinces in southern Iraq, including Basra. They began handing security responsibilities over to the Iraqis last year, when two provinces were placed under Iraqi control. The British have since abandoned their base in a third province.  The final contingent at Basra will now retreat from the city to their barracks at a nearby air base, where they will continue to provide support and training for the Iraqi forces which have now assumed control, until they are recalled to Britain.British military commanders have long supported the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and have repeatedly warned that the British military has been failing to cope with more pressing commitments around the globe.

Iraq War Violence Erupts After Calm

Although Baghdad was breathing a welcome sigh of relief on Saturday, with 110,000 US and Iraqi forces advancing their much-anticipated crackdown in the capital, the violence in Iraq contined to escalate.

Insurgents hit a coalition outpost north of the Iraqi capital Monday, killing two American soldiers and wounding 17 others, the US military announced. Insurgents “initiated the coordinated attack” on the outpost with a car bomb, according to a brief military statement.

Attacks have also resumed in the Baghdad area as the calm seems to have broken.

Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice touched down in Iraq on an unannounced visit to praise the troops’ progress and warn that the Iraqi government needs to use the ‘breathing space’ to push through political reforms that hold the key to ending the sectarian bloodshed.

“They are off to a good start,” said Dr Rice, referring to the joint US-Iraqi Operation Imposing Law. “How the Iraqis use the breathing space that might provide is what is really important.”

Dr Rice planned to meet with (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, (Kurdish) President Jalal Talabani and (Sunni) Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi during her visit. She said she intended to make clear the urgency of political reconciliation to unite warring groups, legislation to share oil revenue between regions and provincial elections to extend the democratic process to the local level.

On Friday, Mr al-Maliki told President Bush in a video conference that the crackdown had been “a brilliant success” thus far, and reassured Mr Bush that Iraqi troops would pursue militants regardless of their sect.

It is hoped that the current crackdown will restore a level of security that will enable the al-Maliki government to introduce historic political reforms. Operation Imposing Order, seen as a last-ditch attempt to impose order in Iraq, has so far included:

  • temporarily closing Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria, to stop the flow of militants and weapons, and to redesign border crossings to curb future weapons smuggling;
  • restricting the movement of vehicles and individuals into and within Baghdad and Basra;
  • setting up checkpoints throughout these cities;
  • stopping and searching vehicles, including official convoys;
  • confiscating explosives and weapons, even from civilians who have gun permits; and
  • ordering squatters out of homes in neighborhoods that have been ethnically cleansed.

Until Sunday, the US troops and Iraqi security forces fanning out across Baghdad had encountered little resistance. As expected, there had been a marked decline in bombings and death squad killings since the troops stepped up their presence.

“Violence and the number of bodies (dumped) has decreased dramatically since the plan was implemented,” said Brigadier Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the general commanding Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. “This is a positive sign.”

The US military blames the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to local Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and based in the sprawling slum of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, for most of the death squad killings in the capital. Hundreds of their members have been arrested over the past few weeks, including Mr al-Sadr’s second in command. The Mehdi Army’s leadership, including Mr al-Sadr, is said to have fled Baghdad to Iran earlier this week.

Other insurgents have simply moved their activities outside the major cities to avoid detection and arrest. On Saturday, a double car bomb exploded in a crowded market in the predominantly Kurdish Rahim Awa district in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing 10 people and wounding 60.

During the early stages of previous joint US-Iraqi crackdowns, violence also dropped off dramatically before spiking with a vengeance. US military officials have warned that insurgents may have gone into hiding temporarily in order to assess the situation for weaknesses that might be exploited.

Dr Rice arrived in Baghdad the day after the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 246 to 182 to “disapprove” of President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq to help quell the sectarian violence.

On Saturday, a second attempt to debate the Iraq war failed in the Senate, which voted 56-34 against debating the merits of the same non-binding resolution to reject the troop surge.

US House Iraq Resolution: The Surge of Congressional Politics

This week’s debate in the US House of Representatives ended with the predicted passage of a non-binding resolution that rejects President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq and sets the tone for a more confrontational relationship between Congress and the White House.

Yet with only 17 out of 201 Republicans crossing the floor to vote for the resolution, the final count of 246 to 182 hardly amounts to a convincing bipartisan revolt. Meanwhile, the stage is now set for clashes within the Democratic party as the factions try to agree on binding measures to thwart the President’s surge while emphasizing the party’s support for the troops in Iraq.

It was a week of high political drama by any standards. While fiery speeches from both sides of the chamber invoked ‘the greats’ from Abraham Lincoln to CS Lewis, the GOP swung into action behind the scenes with a range of maneuvers to counter the prospect of mass defections.

In a letter dated February 13 (Tuesday), Reps. John Shadegg of Arizona (Chair of the House Republican Policy Committee) and Pete Hoekstra of Michigan (top Republican, House Intelligence Committee) urged GOP members to avoid debating the war during their speeches: “If we let the Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose. Rather, the debate must be about the global threat of the radical Islamist movement.” Over the next three days, it became clear that this tactic had been taken up by scores of party faithful.

On Wednesday, President Bush held a last-minute press conference at 11 a.m., the same time that Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who co-authored the resolution, was scheduled to take the floor and lead anti-surge Republicans speaking in favor of the resolution. This was viewed as a ‘remarkable coincidence’ by Democratic leaders.

Then on Thursday, the Republican Study Committee issued a press release accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) of violating copyright laws by posting C-SPAN footage of the House debate on her blog, The Gavel. However, the committee was forced to retract their accusation two hours later, after learning that Congress owns the copyright and not C-SPAN.

Although the anti-surge resolution is non-binding and is not in itself considered a threat to President Bush, it nevertheless fires the first salvo at his Iraq policy. Speaker Pelosi told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “Well, the president, on the one hand, says that this is just a resolution that doesn’t really mean that much and, on the other hand, the White House is working very hard to stop Republicans from voting for it.”

Democrats readily united behind the non-binding resolution to identify what they don’t want (the surge); however, the greater test of party unity will be played out as they work to reach consensus regarding which binding measure should be used to block the troop surge.

Speaker Pelosi has said that no final decisions have been made with respect to binding legislation. However, she said she supports measures proposed by Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) to restrict troop deployments by restricting war funding according to new conditions including: giving troops at least one year to rest between deployments, training troops in urban warfare and counterinsurgency, and providing appropriate safety equipment. Attaching these conditions to President Bush’s latest funding request could well prevent most of his proposed troop surge.

“We’re going to make sure people understand we’re supporting the troops and protecting the troops,” Rep. Murtha told antiwar group Win Without War. “On the other hand, we are going to stop this surge.”

The Democratic leadership is under pressure to go beyond the non-binding resolution, especially from the party’s anti-war activists who will have a major hand in determining the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, there is also the growing anti-war sentiment of US voters, which put the Democrats in control of both Houses of Congress following the mid-term elections in November. According to polls taken at the time of the November elections, most Americans favored a twelve-month deadline for bringing US troops home from Iraq.

Thus, while the resolution passed after this week’s marathon debate is non-binding, it further commits the Democrats to honoring their election promise to force a military de-escalation in Iraq. The drama now looks set to continue within the party, as moderates clash with liberals over the extent to which Congress should use its control over the purse strings to confront the President and change the US course in Iraq.

Report: World More Dangerous, Blasts President Bush

A bipartisan expert survey released this week says the war in Iraq is having a negative impact on national security; the US is losing the war on terror; and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the most urgent foreign policy objective. The government of North Korea is also the second most dangerous in the world, just behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

The Terrorism Index is the second compiled by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine, and is based on a survey of more than 100 top US foreign policy experts, both Republican and Democrat. Eighty percent of the experts have served in the US government – they include former secretaries of state, national security advisors, senior White House aides, top military commanders, seasoned intelligence officers and distinguished academics and journalists.

The foreign policy community believes that US foreign policies and priorities are significantly flawed, with 87 percent regarding US public diplomacy as a failure. Eighty-one percent believe the world is becoming more dangerous and 75 percent say the US is losing the war on terror. Seventy percent say President Bush has no clear plan to protect the US from terrorism, a figure that includes 40 percent conservative respondents. Over 80 percent of the experts foresee another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within the decade.

Eighty-eight percent said the war in Iraq is having a negative impact on US national security, although 34 percent agreed that troops should be increased to try to stabilize the country. Participants noted significant improvements in the performance of 6 out of 9 agencies engaged in the war on terror since the last index was compiled in June 2006, including the CIA and the Defense Department, whose improvements were attributed to their new chiefs.

The majority of participants believe that Iraq is not the central front in the war on terror and is distracting the US from more dangerous threats such as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea – whose denuclearization is regarded as the single most important US foreign policy imperative of the next five years. The Bush administration’s policy toward Pyongyang which has until recently marginalized diplomatic efforts had not been working, and the experts hailed the recent diplomatic agreement reached as a significant breakthrough for US national security. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed rated North Korea as the country most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorist groups.

Almost 70 percent of respondents support troop level increases in Afghanistan because the government is ‘faltering – and fast’. Attacks against US and NATO forces have increased 300 percent since September and, with a Taliban offensive expected this spring, the military commanders have suggested that the troop surge in Iraq ‘may be the right idea in the wrong place’. They also note that al Qaeda has helped the Taliban adopt more deadly improvized explosive devices (IEDs) which were developed in Iraq.

While almost 95 percent of experts agree that the US has made progress at staunching the flow of terrorist money worldwide, this is tempered by the declining cost of devising explosives such as those used in the coordinated bombings in Bali in 2002 ($50,000) which killed 202 people, Madrid in 2004 ($10,000) which killed 191 people and London in 2005 ($2,000) which killed 52 people. Hundreds more were injured in each attack.

Terrorist organizations in the Middle East, including Hezbollah and Hamas, are generally seen to be growing in strength.


How would you rank the relative strength of the following organizations today as opposed to the same time last year?

Much Weaker

Somewhat Weaker

About the Same

Somewhat Stronger

Much Stronger













al Qaeda












Taliban and al Qaeda leadership are now regrouping and coordinating their efforts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and 91 percent of experts say that the US ‘must increase pressure dramatically on Pakistan to confront militants in the tribal areas’. The majority of participants believe that Somalia will become the next al Qaeda stronghold, and to a slightly lesser extent Pakistan.

The Iranian government under President Ahmadinejad was judged the most dangerous in the world. Nearly three-quarters of the experts disapproved of President Bush’s handling of relations with Iran, and 61 percent opposed military action even if Iran ‘continues to develop nuclear weapons’. This contrasts with 40 percent public approval for the Bush administration’s Iran policy and 52 percent supporting a military strike to check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

 Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling relations with Iran?









 Would you support or oppose military action against Iran if it continues to develop nuclear weapons?












Experts generally felt less safe than the general public with respect to terrorism and national security. Only 12 percent of experts saw the world as safer than before the 9/11 attacks, while nearly half the public respondents felt safer. And while nearly half of Americans believe the US is winning the war on terror, only 16 percent of experts would agree. Experts were also more likely to recommend stepping back from military escalation in favor of diplomacy in the event of strained relations between countries.

The Terrorism Index can be viewed in full at either of the following links:



Iran Weapons, Insurgents Is Iraq War Battleground

As Iraqi officials announced on Tuesday that four checkpoints along the country’s border with Iran would be temporarily closed in order to quell the violence in Iraq, there is some disagreement between the top US military officer and the White House about whether the Iranian government is involved in arming the insurgency.

Hours after a truck bomb killed 15 people and wounded 27 outside the Trade Ministry in Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar gave a televised address on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he explained that Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria would be closed for 72 hours, in an effort to restore control.

US and Iraqi officials have long maintained that weapons and insurgents have been entering Iraq through Iran and Syria.

US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, acknowledged that Iranian materials had been found in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq, and that Coalition forces had captured some Iranians fighting in Shiite militias; however, he said that does not amount to proof that the Iranian government is aware of or involved in these covert activities.

“That could not translate to that the Iranian government per se procured these or is directly involved in doing this,” said Gen. Pace. “What it does say is that things that are made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers and that some Iranians have been captured in the process of the coalition going after the networks.”

On Sunday, US officials in Baghdad met with journalists and displayed fragments of what they said were Iranian-manufactured weapons smuggled into Iraq. In particular, they pointed to “explosively formed penetrators”, factory-built explosives designed to cut through armor, which have been blamed for the deaths of 170 Coalition troops in Iraq. The officials said this proved that the highest-ranking officials in Iran are directly involved in arming the Iraqi insurgency.

However, Gen. Pace urged caution in what he still considers assumptions. “It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it’s clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit,” he said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted on Monday that there is no conflict between Gen. Pace’s assessment and that of the White House and senior military officials. “We’re not on a different page,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Snow said that he is confident that the smuggling of the weapons into Iraq had the approval of the Iranian government. “Do we have a signed piece of paper from Mr. Khamenei or from President Ahmadinejad signing off on this? No,” said Mr Snow. “But are the Qods forces part of the government? The answer is yes. So the question is, I think this ends up being a semantic dispute about senior levels of the government or the government. And the fact is, the government knows about it.” Mr Snow said members of the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had played a destabilizing role in Iraq.

The US military has also recently said that the serial numbers found on rifles confiscated from Shiite militias had been traced back to Iran. On Tuesday, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported that US troops had recovered more than 100 “Steyr .50 HS” rifles, which they said were part of an Austrian consignment of 800 guns delivered to Iran, despite US objections that they might be smuggled to insurgents. But Steyr CEO Franz Holzschuh said the company had yet to be approached to verify the serial numbers. He also said that the rifles could be replicas, thousands of which are now in circulation.

Tehran continues to deny any involvement in arming Shiite militias in Iraq and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini has rejected the charge outright. “The US accusations from the past months concerning Iran’s implication in the troubles in Iraq are without foundation,” said Mr Hosseini. “They have made these allegations with the aim of creating propaganda.”

Fears have been mounting that the US is accusing the Iranian government of arming insurgents and developing nuclear weapons to lay the groundwork for a military strike. However, Mr Snow flatly denied that the US had any such plans.

“We’ve declared it over and over. We’re not going to war with them,” said Mr Snow. “Let me make that clear. So anybody who is trying to use this as ‘the administration trying to lay the predicate for a war with Iran’ – no, we’re committed to diplomacy with Iran. But we are also committed to protecting our forces.”

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