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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, from Iraq, NPR's Anne Garrels says in Baghdad things might actually be getting better.

BRAND: President Bush has blamed Iran for meddling in Iraq and other conflicts in the Middle East. Now a story in today's Washington Post says the White House has authorized U.S. troops to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq. President Bush was asked about this today during a White House photo-op.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our policy is going to be to protect our troops in Iraq. It makes sense. That if somebody is trying to harm our troops or stop it from achieving our goal or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them.

Dafna Linzer wrote the Washington Post story today. She joins us now. Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Ms. DAFNA LINZER (Washington Post): Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, previously, I understand, the policy was called catch and release. They might catch these Iranian operatives, hold them for a few days and then release them. When did the president authorize this new strategy?

Ms. LINZER: Yeah, the new strategy really kind of came together in the fall. And the president personally authorized using lethal force against Iranians in Iraq. At that time, in a meeting surrounded by his top advisers, known as the principals - these are people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of defense, who at the time was Don Rumsfeld and is now Robert Gates. And as you said, the original policy was catch and release.

It did have some benefits, in that U.S. intelligence gathered quite a bit of information on Iranians who are operating inside Iraq. But that's now changed, mostly because people felt frustrated inside the administration and wanted a more robust policy.

BRAND: A robust policy, why? To prevent the violence in Iraq or to pressure Iran?

Ms. LINZER: The president clearly portrayed this today as an effort to staunch the violence in Iraq, and portrayed it as part of an Iraq policy. However, this is not part of an Iraq policy per se. It's really an Iran strategy. The idea is to try and make the Iranian government feel nervous, feel less emboldened than they have in the last few years as a result of the situation in Iraq, as a result of U.S. troops being bogged down both there and in Afghanistan.

The idea is that the Iranians will become nervous, and thus will be more willing to make a deal on its nuclear program. That is the aim here, and that is what the strategy is designed around in secret. That is what the president authorized.

BRAND: And you write in your story today that this policy extends outside of Iraq to other countries in the Middle East.

Ms. LINZER: Part of this strategy branches us out into Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Again, there's efforts against stopping Iranian funding to Hamas, which is now running the Palestinian government and the Palestinian territories; and also Iranian interests in Afghanistan, which are enormous, both financially, culturally and religiously.

BRAND: Well, of course this strategy I guess could backfire and make Iran more belligerent and not back down.

Ms. LINZER: Indeed. It's really predicated on a bet. And that bet is that if you go really hard against the Iranians in Iraq and elsewhere, that they'll go soft in response, that they'll start to make all kinds of concessions on their nuclear program. But the president was advised from the intelligence community, from people in the Defense Department, even people in the State Department, that in fact that the Iranians could respond in just the opposite direction. They could escalate violence in Iraq. Knowing all that information, the president still went forward with the program.

BRAND: And do you know if any Iranian operatives have indeed been killed?

Ms. LINZER: My understanding is that the use of lethal force hasn't take place yet. We have seen a couple cases where few Iranians were arrested in places like Irbill in the north and other areas. But we haven't seen the use of lethal force yet, although people in the administration, senior administration officials, have been pressing the military to begin carrying out this authority.

And that has led to conversations on the ground in Iraq between U.S. special operations teams, British special operations teams who will also participate in some of these activities, to start working out exactly what the rules on the ground are, and how they will begin targeting individuals.

BRAND: Well, given, Dafna, that this was a secret program, secretly authorized by the president, will the administration publicize the killings of these Iranian operatives if they do take place, or will those remain secret?

Ms. LINZER: My understanding is that that whole side of the operation was supposed to be secret, that any death will not be publicized. It will be interesting to see what happens, because even on the diplomatic level, this could become extremely explosive. If Americans start advertising that they have actually carried out this kind of lethal authority, that's basically are providing an invitation to the Iranians to publicly respond.

BRAND: Dafna Linzer is a reporter for the Washington Post. Her story on U.S. troops being authorized to kill Iranian operatives in Iraq is in today's paper. And Dafna Linzer, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LINZER: Thank you.

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