Troops Authorized to Kill Iranian Operatives in Iraq
Administration Strategy Stirs Concern Among Some Officials
By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007; A01
The Bush administration has authorized the U.S. military to kill or
capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new
strategy to weaken Tehran's influence across the Middle East and
compel it to give up its nuclear program, according to government and
counterterrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort.
For more than a year, U.S. forces in Iraq have secretly detained
dozens of suspected Iranian agents, holding them for three to four
days at a time. The "catch and release" policy was designed to avoid
escalating tensions with Iran and yet intimidate its emissaries. U.S.
forces collected DNA samples from some of the Iranians without their
knowledge, subjected others to retina scans, and fingerprinted and
photographed all of them before letting them go.
Last summer, however, senior administration officials decided that a
more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran's regional
influence grew and U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be
failing. The country's nuclear work was advancing, U.S. allies were
resisting robust sanctions against the Tehran government, and Iran was
aggravating sectarian violence in Iraq.
"There were no costs for the Iranians," said one senior administration
official. "They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending
over backwards not to fight back."
Three officials said that about 150 Iranian intelligence officers,
plus members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Command, are believed to be
active inside Iraq at any given time. There is no evidence the
Iranians have directly attacked U.S. troops in Iraq, intelligence
But, for three years, the Iranians have operated an embedding program
there, offering operational training, intelligence and weaponry to
several Shiite militias connected to the Iraqi government, to the
insurgency and to the violence against Sunni factions. Gen. Michael V.
Hayden, the director of the CIA, told the Senate recently that the
amount of Iranian-supplied materiel used against U.S. troops in Iraq
"has been quite striking."
"Iran seems to be conducting a foreign policy with a sense of
dangerous triumphalism," Hayden said.
The new "kill or capture" program was authorized by President Bush in
a meeting of his most senior advisers last fall, along with other
measures meant to curtail Iranian influence from Kabul to Beirut and,
ultimately, to shake Iran's commitment to its nuclear efforts. Tehran
insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, but the United States
and other nations say it is aimed at developing weapons.
The administration's plans contain five "theaters of interest," as one
senior official put it, with military, intelligence, political and
diplomatic strategies designed to target Iranian interests across the
The White House has authorized a widening of what is known inside the
intelligence community as the "Blue Game Matrix" -- a list of approved
operations that can be carried out against the Iranian-backed
Hezbollah in Lebanon. And U.S. officials are preparing international
sanctions against Tehran for holding several dozen al-Qaeda fighters
who fled across the Afghan border in late 2001. They plan more
aggressive moves to disrupt Tehran's funding of the radical
Palestinian group Hamas and to undermine Iranian interests among
Shiites in western Afghanistan.
In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of
Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence
services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does
not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are
not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush
administration officials have been urging top military commanders to
exercise the authority.
The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the
intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense
Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict
between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war.
Senior administration officials said the policy is based on the theory
that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United
States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of
vulnerability among Iranian leaders. But if Iran responds with
escalation, it has the means to put U.S. citizens and national
interests at greater risk in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Officials said Hayden counseled the president and his advisers to
consider a list of potential consequences, including the possibility
that the Iranians might seek to retaliate by kidnapping or killing
U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Two officials said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though a
supporter of the strategy, is concerned about the potential for
errors, as well as the ramifications of a military confrontation
between U.S. and Iranian troops on the Iraqi battlefield.
In meetings with Bush's other senior advisers, officials said, Rice
insisted that the defense secretary appoint a senior official to
personally oversee the program to prevent it from expanding into a
full-scale conflict. Rice got the oversight guarantees she sought,
though it remains unclear whether senior Pentagon officials must
approve targets on a case-by-case basis or whether the oversight is
The departments of Defense and State referred all requests for comment
on the Iran strategy to the National Security Council, which declined
to address specific elements of the plan and would not comment on some
But in response to questions about the "kill or capture"
authorization, Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the NSC, said: "The
president has made clear for some time that we will take the steps
necessary to protect Americans on the ground in Iraq and disrupt
activity that could lead to their harm. Our forces have standing
authority, consistent with the mandate of the U.N. Security Council."
Officials said U.S. and British special forces in Iraq, which will
work together in some operations, are developing the program's rules
of engagement to define the exact circumstances for using force. In
his last few weeks as the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W.
Casey Jr. sought to help coordinate the program on the ground. One
official said Casey had planned to designate Iran's Revolutionary
Guard as a "hostile entity," a distinction within the military that
would permit offensive action.
Casey's designated successor, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, told
Congress in writing this week that a top priority will be "countering
the threats posed by Iranian and Syrian meddling in Iraq, and the
continued mission of dismantling terrorist networks and killing or
capturing those who refuse to support a unified, stable Iraq."
Advocates of the new policy -- some of whom are in the NSC, the vice
president's office, the Pentagon and the State Department -- said that
only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran's growing
influence. A less confident Iran, with fewer cards, may be more
willing to cut the kind of deal the Bush administration is hoping for
on its nuclear program. "The Iranians respond to the international
community only when they are under pressure, not when they are feeling
strong," one official said.
With aspects of the plan also targeting Iran's influence in Lebanon,
Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, the policy goes beyond
the threats Bush issued earlier this month to "interrupt the flow of
support from Iran and Syria" into Iraq. It also marks a departure from
years past when diplomacy appeared to be the sole method of pressuring
Iran to reverse course on its nuclear program.
R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs,
said in an interview in late October that the United States knows that
Iran "is providing support to Hezbollah and Hamas and supporting
insurgent groups in Iraq that have posed a problem for our military
forces." He added: "In addition to the nuclear issue, Iran's support
for terrorism is high up on our agenda."
Burns, the top Foreign Service officer in the State Department, has
been leading diplomatic efforts to increase international pressure on
the Iranians. Over several months, the administration made available
five political appointees for interviews, to discuss limited aspects
of the policy, on the condition that they not be identified.
Officials who spoke in more detail and without permission -- including
senior officials, career analysts and policymakers -- said their
standing with the White House would be at risk if they were quoted by
The decision to use lethal force against Iranians inside Iraq began
taking shape last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah in
Lebanon. Officials said a group of senior Bush administration
officials who regularly attend the highest-level counterterrorism
meetings agreed that the conflict provided an opening to portray Iran
as a nuclear-ambitious link between al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the death
squads in Iraq.
Among those involved in the discussions, beginning in August, were
deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, NSC counterterrorism
adviser Juan Zarate, the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center,
representatives from the Pentagon and the vice president's office, and
outgoing State Department counterterrorism chief Henry A. Crumpton.
At the time, Bush publicly emphasized diplomacy as his preferred path
for dealing with Iran. Standing before the U.N. General Assembly in
New York on Sept. 19, Bush spoke directly to the Iranian people: "We
look to the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can
be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."
Two weeks later, Crumpton flew from Washington to U.S. Central Command
headquarters in Tampa for a meeting with Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top
U.S. commander for the Middle East. A principal reason for the visit,
according to two officials with direct knowledge of the discussion,
was to press Abizaid to prepare for an aggressive campaign against
Iranian intelligence and military operatives inside Iraq.
Information gleaned through the "catch and release" policy expanded
what was once a limited intelligence community database on Iranians in
Iraq. It also helped to avert a crisis between the United States and
the Iraqi government over whether U.S. troops should be holding
Iranians, several officials said, and dampened the possibility of
Iranians directly targeting U.S. personnel in retaliation.
But senior officials saw it as too timid.
"We were making no traction" with "catch and release," a senior
counterterrorism official said in a recent interview, explaining that
it had failed to halt Iranian activities in Iraq or worry the Tehran
leadership. "Our goal is to change the dynamic with the Iranians, to
change the way the Iranians perceive us and perceive themselves. They
need to understand that they cannot be a party to endangering U.S.
soldiers' lives and American interests, as they have before. That is
going to end."
A senior intelligence officer was more wary of the ambitions of the
"This has little to do with Iraq. It's all about pushing Iran's
buttons. It is purely political," the official said. The official
expressed similar views about other new efforts aimed at Iran,
suggesting that the United States is escalating toward an unnecessary
conflict to shift attention away from Iraq and to blame Iran for the
United States' increasing inability to stanch the violence there.
But some officials within the Bush administration say that targeting
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Command, and specifically a Guard unit
known as the Quds Force, should be as much a priority as fighting
al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Quds Force is considered by Western intelligence
to be directed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to
support Iraqi militias, Hamas and Hezbollah.
In interviews, two senior administration officials separately compared
the Tehran government to the Nazis and the Guard to the "SS." They
also referred to Guard members as "terrorists." Such a formal
designation could turn Iran's military into a target of what Bush
calls a "war on terror," with its members potentially held as enemy
combatants or in secret CIA detention.
Asked whether such a designation is imminent, Johndroe of the NSC said
in a written response that the administration has "long been concerned
about the activities of the IRGC and its components throughout the
Middle East and beyond." He added: "The Iranian Revolutionary Guards
Quds Force is a part of the Iranian state apparatus that supports and
carries out these activities."
Staff writer Barton Gellman and staff researcher Julie Tate
contributed to this report.
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