In his address Wednesday night, President Bush said he wants to boost U.S. troop strength in Iraq to quell sectarian violence. But he also made clear that the United States holds two of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, to blame for fueling the clashes. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports from Washington, the Bush administration is anxious to head off what it perceives to be an Iranian bid for greater influence in the region.
As the violence in Iraq has escalated, so, too, has the rhetoric from Bush administration officials about Iran's alleged support for insurgents there. In his Wednesday speech, President Bush directly blamed Iran as well as Syria for providing help to Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq.
"Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops," he said. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
After the president spoke, reports emerged of an alleged U.S. raid on the Iranian consulate in the city of Irbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Iraqi officials said six people were detained in the raid and computers and documents were confiscated. Officials in Tehran angrily denounced the raid and summoned the ambassadors of Iraq and Switzerland - which looks after U.S. interests in Iran because of the lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington - for an explanation.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman says the building raided in Irbil was not a consulate or government building and that he would not connect this event to the president's call to stem the support from Iran and Syria to the insurgents in Iraq.
But, speaking Thursday morning, General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says Iran is clearly involved with the insurgents in Iraq, and U.S. forces will go after those who are arming them, but only within Iraq.
"I think that it's instructive that in the last couple of weeks two of these raids that we conducted that go after these folks that are providing those kinds of weapons policed up [rounded up] Iranians," he said. "So it is clear that the Iranians are complicit in providing weapons. And it's also clear that we will do all that we need to do to defend our troops in Iraq by going after the entire network, regardless of where those people come from."
The president also announced he is sending an aircraft carrier and supporting ships to the Persian Gulf.
While there was no threat, in the speech, of direct military action against Iran, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a fellow of the MIddle East Institute and director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University, says the administration's rhetoric is becoming more bellicose.
"Frankly, they smell a bit of adventurism as far as I'm concerned, and one is worried about the repercussions of these things," he said. "I think it's intended to send a signal to the Iranians. But, as you know, in that region of the world things can quickly develop a momentum of their own and get out of hand and the law of unintended consequences will take over."
The Iran-Iraq relationship is a complex one. Iran fought a bloody war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Now Saddam is gone, thanks, ironically, to the United States. Analysts say that with Saddam's departure, Iran seeks to become a regional power, and believes it has a natural ally in the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Reva Bhalla, an Iran analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based private intelligence firm, says Iran believes that America's difficulty in Iraq is Iran's opportunity to become a regional power, especially if it acquires nuclear weapons, as the West fears.
"Iraq used to be this Sunni hostile state against Iran, and the memories of the Iran-Iraq war are very vivid in Tehran still today," she noted. "So to be able to secure its western flank and consolidate Shi'ite control in the country is huge for Iran. And to have the nuclear deterrent as well is going to raise Iran to the status that it has been trying to [achieve] since the Islamic Republic [of Iran] came to be."
Bhalla says that if the United States were to withdraw prematurely and Iran would step into the breach, that would leave not only the United States, but also Israel and Sunni Arab states that neighbor Iraq in what she calls an untenable position.
"Saudi Arabia, for example, can't be assured that the Iranian march into Iraq is going to stop there," she added. "And they have to look at how to protect their southern oil fields, especially when they are just completely dependent on the United States for [their] own national security. So by surging troops into the country, I think the U.S. is showing that it is still very much in the game. And that strategy may be in concert with Israel as well."
Iran insists it wants stability in Iraq. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Ali Hossein said Iran would not allow the United States to impair, as he phrased it, Tehran's relations with Baghdad and that the Bush plan to send additional troops will only extend insecurity, danger, and tension there. Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said the troop increase will only, as he put it, pour oil on the fire.
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