The July 19, 2005, protest — blandly titled “Message from the United States to the Government of Iran” — informed the Iranians that a British soldier had been killed by one of the devices in Maysan Province in eastern Iraq.
The complaint said that the Shiite militants who planted the device had longstanding ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, and that the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia had been training Iraqi Shiite insurgents in Iran and supplying them with bomb-making equipment.
“We will continue to judge Iran by its actions in Iraq,” the protest added.
Iran flatly denied the charges in a diplomatic reply it sent the following month, and it continues to deny any role in the supply of the lethal weapons. But the confidential exchange foreshadowed the more public confrontation between the Bush administration and Iran that has been unfolding since December.
In the past four months, the administration has sought to put new pressure on Tehran, through military raids against Iranian operatives in Iraq, the dispatch of an American aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, as well as the increasingly public complaints about Iran’s role in arming Shiite militias. The American actions prompted criticism that the White House is trying to find a scapegoat for military setbacks in Iraq, or even to prepare for a new war with Iran.
A review of the administration’s accusations of an Iranian weapons supply role, including interviews with officials in Washington and Baghdad, critics of the administration and independent experts, shows that intelligence that Iran was providing lethal assistance to Shiite militias has been a major worry for more than two years.
The concern intensified toward the end of 2006 as American casualties from the explosive devices, known as explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s, began to climb. According to classified data gathered by the American military, E.F.P. attacks accounted for 18 percent of combat deaths of Americans and allied troops in Iraq in the last quarter of 2006.
Excluding casualty data for the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, where the explosives have not been found, the devices accounted for about 30 percent of American and allied deaths for the last quarter of the year.
Some Democrats in Congress, while critical of many aspects of Bush administration policy toward Iraq and Iran, say they are persuaded by the intelligence pointing to an Iranian role in supplying E.F.P.’s. Debate remains about whether Iran’s top leaders ordered the supply of the weapons, about whether the Iranian-supplied devices can be copied in Iraq and about American policy toward Tehran.
In January, the number of American and allied troops killed by E.F.P. attacks was less than half of December’s total. That trend continued in February.
Some American officials suggest that this may be a response to their efforts to highlight the role Iran is accused of playing, but another factor may be that many Shiite militants have opted not to confront American troops. The weapon, however, is still a major danger. On March 15, an E.F.P. attack in eastern Baghdad killed four American service members and wounded two others.
A Devastating Weapon
E.F.P.’s are one of the most devastating weapons on the battlefield. The weapons fire a semi-molten copper slug that cuts through the armor on a Humvee, then shatters inside the vehicle, creating a deadly hail of hot metal that causes especially gruesome wounds even when it does not kill.
Many of the E.F.P.’s encountered by American forces in Iraq are both difficult to detect and extremely destructive. Because they fire from the side of the road, there is no need to dig a hole to plant them, so they are well suited for urban settings. Because they are set off by a passive infrared sensor, the kind of motion detector that turns on security lights, they cannot be countered by electronic jamming.
Adversaries have used the weapon in new ways. On Feb. 12, a British Air Force C-130 was damaged by two E.F.P arrays as it landed on an airstrip in Maysan Province, the first time the device was used to attack an aircraft, according to allied officials. Allied forces later destroyed the aircraft with a 1,000-pound bomb to keep militants from pilfering equipment.
Over the course of the war, the devices have accounted for only a small fraction of the roadside bomb attacks in Iraq; most bombing attacks and most American deaths have been caused by less sophisticated devices favored by Sunni insurgents, not Shiite militias linked to Iran. But E.F.P.’s produce significantly more casualties per attack than other types of roadside bombs.
“They were a new type of threat with a great potential for damage,” said Lt. Col. Kevin W. Farrell, who commanded the First Battalion, 64th Armor of the Third Infantry Division, in 2005, when a penetrator punched through the skirt armor of one of the battalion’s M-1 tanks and cracked its hull. “They accounted for a sizable percentage of our casualties. Based on searches of the Baghdad environment we occupied and multiple local Iraqi sources, we believed that they came from Iran.”
A Gradual Realization
American intelligence analysts say the first detonation of an E.F.P. in Iraq may have come in August 2003. But their view that Iran was playing a role in the attacks emerged slowly. American officials said their assessment of Iranian involvement was based on a cumulative picture that included forensic examination of exploded and captured devices, and parallels between the use of the weapons in Iraq and devices used in southern Lebanon by Hezbollah.
“There was no eureka moment,” said one senior American official, who like several others would discuss intelligence and administration decision-making only on condition of anonymity.
The entire E.F.P. assembly seen repeatedly in Iraq, including the radio link used to activate it and the infrared sensor used to fire it, had been found only one other place in the world, American officials say: Lebanon, since 1998, where it is believed to have been supplied by Iran to Hezbollah.
According to one military expert, some of the radio transmitters used to activate some of the E.F.P.’s in Iraq operate on the same frequency and use the same codes as devices used against Israeli forces in Lebanon.
More evidence came from the interception of trucks in Iraq, within a few miles of the Iranian border, carrying copper discs machined to the precise curvature required to form the penetrating projectile. Wrappers for C4 explosive, among other items, were traceable to Iran, officials say.
An important part of the American claim comes from intelligence, including interrogation of captured militia members, about Shiite militants who use E.F.P.’s and maintain close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah.
The militant groups led by Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani have operated one of the most important E.F.P. networks. According to American intelligence reports, his network has been receiving E.F.P. components and training from the Quds Force, and elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah operatives in Iran. He is on the Iraqi most-wanted list and the Iraqi criminal court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005.
Ahmad Abu Sajad al-Gharawi, a former Mahdi Army commander, has been active in Maysan Province. American intelligence officials say his group was probably linked to the attack on British forces that was cited in the American diplomatic protest. He is also on the Iraqi government’s most-wanted list, and an Iraqi warrant has been issued for his arrest.
In September 2005, British forces arrested Ahmad Jawwad al-Fartusi, the leader of a splinter group of the Mahdi Army that carried out E.F.P. attacks against British forces in southern Iraq. American intelligence concluded that his fighters might have received training and E.F.P. components from Hezbollah.
Mr. Fartusi lived in Lebanon for several years, and a photograph of him with Hezbollah members was discovered when British forces searched his home. In the view of American officials that may be circumstantial evidence of an Iranian connection, because American intelligence experts say Hezbollah generally conducts operations in Iraq with the consent of Iran.
Last week, American-led forces captured Qais Khazali and Laith Khazali, two Shiite militants who were linked to the kidnapping and killing of five American soldiers in Karbala in January, the United States military said. American officials say they have also trafficked in E.F.P.’s.
Some people who are experts on military matters but who acknowledge they do not have access to the classified intelligence have said the weapons could be made in Iraq. But American officials say they have not found any facilities inside Iraq where the high-quality E.F.P. components are being manufactured.
Nonetheless, the E.F.P. experience in Iraq appears to have, in turn, influenced developments in Lebanon. The installation of E.F.P.’s in foam blocks painted to resemble rocks, a technique first used in 2005 by Shiite militias in Iraq, appeared last summer in Lebanon when Hezbollah was battling Israeli forces. Previously, Hezbollah had generally placed the devices on tripods at the side of the road, covering them with brush to avoid detection.
“There’s almost been a cross-pollenization,” one official said.
American and British forces have been the primary targets in the E.F.P. attacks, but the devices have also been used against Iraqi security forces. In June 2005, a Japanese convoy near Samawa was struck by a roadside bomb that used a remote control firing device typically provided by Iran or Hezbollah. Concerned by the attacks, the British government protested through diplomatic channels in Tehran that year. Taking note of the British complaint, the Americans made their protest through Swiss intermediaries in Iran. As evidence of an Iranian role, the American complaint cited a May 29, 2005, E.F.P attack near Amara that killed a 21-year-old British lance corporal, Alan Brackenbury. Iran denied any involvement.
Discussing Concerns Publicly
After that diplomatic rebuff, American officials began to broach the topic publicly. In August 2005, Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, said allied forces were being made targets of bombs “that seem to have a footprint similar to that of devices used by groups that have historically had Iranian support.”
In October 2005, the British ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, told reporters in London that Iran was supplying lethal technology that had been used against British troops. Prime Minister Tony Blair added, “The particular nature of those devices lead us to either to Iranian elements or to Hezbollah.” At the time Mr. Blair expressed caution about the certainty of the link to Iran, but in February of this year he said it was clear that Iran “is the origin of that weaponry.”
Beginning in April 2006, E.F.P. attacks began to rise. With both the diplomatic protests and the public statements having failed to stop the attacks, American officials again began to discuss what to do. The changing nature of the American strategy, with its increased emphasis on challenging Shiite militias in and around Baghdad, made the issue all the more pressing.
According to officials involved in the discussion, who asked not be identified, one concern was that raiding Iranian operatives in Iraq might provoke Iran to increase lethal assistance to Shiite militants. Another worry was that it might require the American command to divert military and intelligence assets from missions against Sunni insurgents, like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
“For many months American officials were torn between a desire to do something and a wish to avoid confrontation,” Philip D. Zelikow, a former senior State Department official, said in a recent speech. “When a government is conflicted about what to do, the usual result is inaction.”
As the Bush administration debated what to do, one issue involved the rules of engagement if American forces were to conduct raids against Iranian operatives in Iraq. After the United States Central Command submitted a plan for such raids, one option that was weighed was to declare the Quds Force that is operating in Iraq, to be a “hostile force.”
Such an order would give the military a clear legal justification for taking action against Iranian officials and operatives in Iraq, and flexibility in planning the raids.
Other officials said the Iranians were also involved in economic and social programs in Iraq. They argued for a more limited approach, saying that the United States should single out only Iranian operatives found to have “hostile intent” against coalition forces. The Bush administration decided that the raids would be carried out under the more limited rules of engagement for now.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top American commander, approved plans to brief the news media on the E.F.P. issue — a reversal for military officials, who had been reluctant to highlight the effectiveness of the weapons for fear of encouraging their use.
“Our intelligence analysts advised our leaders that the historical Quds Force pattern is to pull back when their operations are exposed, so MNF-I leadership decided to expose their operations to save American lives,” said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief spokesman for Multinational Forces-Iraq, as the American-led command is known.
The Iran Connection
Some Democratic lawmakers who are critical of the administration’s Iraq policies say they now accept that there is a connection between Iran and the E.F.P. attacks in Iraq, though they emphasize that Iran is not the primary reason for instability in Iraq.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who opposed Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan, said he believed that the Bush administration was using the E.F.P. issue to distract attention from the difficulties in Iraq. But he said he was persuaded that the weapons were coming from Iran, in part from extensive talks with American and British commanders during trips to Iraq.
“They want to keep us under pressure in Iraq without causing a major power reaction by us or a major meltdown within Iraq, which puts a failing state on their borders,” Mr. Reed said of the Iranians.
At a February hearing, Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a critic of the plan to send more troops to Baghdad, pressed Mike McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, to acknowledge that other countries in the region, too, were supplying insurgents in Iraq.
Mr. Levin, however, said he was “not surprised” by Mr. McConnell’s view that some of Iran’s leaders probably knew of E.F.P. deliveries arranged by the Quds Force, and aides say Mr. Levin believes that the administration has been too cautious about pinning the blame on Iran’s leaders.
Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation and a Middle East specialist who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and on the staff of the National Security Council, also said he believed that Iran was supplying munitions to Shiite militias.
But Mr. Leverett said the threat to American troops from Sunni insurgents, who draw on Syria and Saudi Arabia for money and other logistical support, was “orders of magnitude” greater than that from Shiites, and he contended that the Bush administration’s public emphasis on the E.F.P.’s was part of a larger administration strategy to blame Iran “for the failure of the American project in Iraq.”
In the report it completed in December, the Iraq Study Group called for opening talks with Iran and suggested Iran could take steps to improve security in Iraq by stemming “the flow of equipment, technology, and training to any group resorting to violence in Iraq.”
“The fact that Iran may be supplying lethal equipment is all the more reason to deal with them,” Lee H. Hamilton, a co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview. “We do think it fortifies the case for engaging Iran.”
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