Levin Helps Boost Iraq Resolution's Chances

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Robert Siegel talks with Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who has agreed to sign on to a bill along with Sen. John Warner (R-VA) expressing disapproval of President Bush's "surge strategy" in Iraq. But some Democrats say the bill could inhibit more critical legislation that could come later.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Bush administration often accuses Iran of meddling in Iraq and supporting Shiite extremists. But it has yet to offer any solid proof. The State Department had promised to make its case against Iran public. But it's holding off amid questions about just how solid U.S. intelligence is.

NPR's Michele Keleman reports.

MICHELE KELEMAN: State Department spokesman John McCormick has said that the U.S. has, as he put it, a mountain of evidence, convincing clear proof that Iranians are supplying Shiite groups in Iraq with weapons technology to kill U.S. troops. Last week he was promising to make it public.

Mr. JOHN McCORMICK (State Department): There was apparently a challenge put out there, I believe, from the Iranian ambassador that night and said well, show us the evidence, show us the evidence that Iranian agents are engaged in these activities. And Ambassador Khalilzad, rightly so, said we will present that evidence. We will make it public.

KELEMAN: McCormick said the U.S. just wants to do it in a way that won't hurt its sources of information. But today in Baghdad, U.S. officials called off a briefing on the issue and officials in Washington are now downplaying expectations. Georgetown professor Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer, is not surprised.

Professor PAUL PILLAR (Georgetown University): Certainly in the wake of the unhappy experiences with the evidence relating to Iraq and its supposed weapons of mass destruction, it should not be surprising that extra caution is being observed in not putting out anything publicly that might later be revealed to have been based on bad sources. Beyond that, we can only speculate as to how much actually is there.

KELEMAN: Iranian-made ordinance found in Iraq, he says, is not proof of Iranian government involvement, and he says it would be very difficult to trace attacks on U.S. forces back to Iran, a thought echoed by retired Colonel Sam Gardiner.

Colonel SAM GARDINER (Retired, U.S. Air Force): Most Americans are killed in Sunni areas, not in the Shiite areas, so that you ask the question to what extent is the arming of the militia having a direct impact on Americans. It certainly is to some degree. But then to a larger degree, we don't know.

KELEMAN: Gardiner says the Bush administration is trying to hype Iran's role in Iraq to elicit outrage among Americans. Take for instance a recent case in Karbala, when attackers posing as Americans killed five U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon is investigating and U.S. officials leaked word of possible Iranian involvement. Many experts saw this as part of the U.S. drumbeat against Iran. And Paul Pillar is among those with serious questions about the reports.

Professor PILLAR: Most of what we've heard pertaining to Iran is simply speculation to the effect that an operation this sophisticated must have had a government behind it. I would caution against jumping toward that kind of conclusion.

KELEMAN: There is one thing that everyone seems to agree on, that Iran's influence in Iraq is widespread. Colonel Larry Wilkerson was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff.

Colonel LARRY WILKERSON (U.S. Army): Iran is more or less sitting in the catbird seat with regard to Iraq and its position in Iraq. So it doesn't need to do anything untoward. That's not to say it isn't doing it.

KELEMAN: But he's not convinced the Bush administration can make a persuasive case.

Colonel WILKERSON: Even if they are doing something far more nefarious than that, and they very well could be, I don't think we have the intelligence capability to ferret it out and prove it in a definitive sort of way.

KELEMAN: His former boss, Colin Powell, was the one to present faulty intelligence to the United Nations on Iraq, so Wilkerson says he can see why there seems to be some angst in the State Department about how and when to present its case on Iran.

Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington.

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