An order from United States President George Bush authorised a series of US raids against Iranians in Iraq as part of a broad military offensive, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
Bush issued the order several months ago, Rice told the New York Times as she prepared on Friday to visit the Middle East. She said the president acted "after a period of time in which we saw increasing activity” among Iranians in Iraq “and increasing lethality in what they were producing”.
Five Iranians were detained by US-led forces this week after a raid on an Iranian government liaison office in northern Iraq, a move that has frayed even further the relations between the two countries. The US accuses Iran of helping provide roadside bombs that have killed American troops in Iraq, and a bitter stand-off already exists over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Rice, according to a story for the Saturday print editions of the Times, described the military effort against Iranians in Iraq as a defensive “force protection mission”. Concerns that Iran was trying to destabilise the country further also motivated the raids, she told the newspaper.
“We think they are providing help to the militias as well, and maybe even the more violent element of these militias,” she said.
On Friday, US officials said there was no immediate plan to strike targets in Iran, but they also wouldn"t rule out military action. Their comments came after Bush vowed in a prime-time address to the nation to go after Iranian terrorist networks feeding the insurgency in Iraq.
Bush's remarks on Wednesday in a speech announcing his plan to boost US forces in Iraq prompted questions from members of Congress about whether the US is considering attacks on Iranian territory. Bush administration officials have long refused to rule out any options against Iran, but said military action would be a last resort.
On Friday, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and General Peter Pace, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee that while US forces are trying to prevent Iran and Syria from disrupting US forces in Iraq, there are no immediate plans for an attack.
“We believe that we can interrupt these networks that are providing support through actions inside the territory of Iraq, that there is no need to attack targets in Iran itself,” Gates told the panel, adding that he continues to believe that “any kind of military action inside Iran itself, that would be a very last resort”.
Pace said special operations forces are continually battling insurgents who are getting aid from Iran. “I think one of the reasons you keep hearing about Iran is because we keep finding their stuff in Iraq,” he said.
Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, chairperson of the foreign relations committee, wrote to Bush on Thursday asking for clarifications on the administration's stance toward attacking Iran. Republican Senator John Warner and Democrat Robert Byrd raised the issue at a hearing on Friday.
“The president seems to have placed diplomacy on the back burner again,” Byrd said.
In his speech on Wednesday, Bush chastised Iran and Syria for not blocking terrorists at their borders with Iraq. He specifically blamed Iran for providing material support for attacks on American troops.
“We will disrupt the attacks on our forces,” Bush said. “We will 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.”
On Friday, White House spokesperson Tony Snow called the suggestion that war plans were under way an “urban legend”.
“What the president was talking about is defending American forces within Iraq, and also doing what we can to disrupt networks that might be trying to convey weapons or fighters into battle theatres within Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis,” Snow said.