WASHINGTON – U.S. military leaders have issued a series of unusual public accusations and warnings about Iran, saying they have new evidence of Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. troops in a broader effort to destabilize Iraq.
On Friday, the nation’s top uniformed officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, accused Iran in a televised news briefing of increasing its shipments of weapons to militants in Iraq, in violation of its promises to stem the flow of arms.
The comments by Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came only days after angry complaints by Army Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
In addition, military officers in Iraq are planning to make public evidence of what Mullen termed Iran’s “malign influence” in Iraq.
Military officials said there was no concerted U.S. campaign to intensify pressure on Iran. But taken together, the remarks represent the shift in the military’s thinking. Hopes expressed last year that Iran might be tempering its involvement in Iraq seem to have evaporated, and military officials have renewed warnings about the potential for military action.
While “a third conflict” in the Middle East in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan would be “extremely stressful” for the U.S. military, no potential adversary should feel emboldened, Mullen said.
“I have reserve capability, particularly in our Navy and our Air Force,” Mullen said. “So it would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability.”
Underscoring the latest tensions, a cargo vessel under contract to the Defense Department fired on a group of small boats in the Persian Gulf on Friday, briefly touching off alarm in the world energy market. U.S. military officials said they believed the boats involved were Iranian, but military officials in Tehran denied the incident took place.
President Bush and officials in his administration have been accused by political opponents of using criticism of Iran to shift public attention from the protracted war in Iraq.
Some experts say the tough, new talk on Iran is aimed more at Arab nations, which are worried about Iranian influence in the Middle East and want to see Washington take a harder line against Tehran.
Both Gates and Mullen have urged repeatedly that military confrontation with Iran be avoided. Mullen and other military officers have said that problems with Iran can and should be solved diplomatically.
Gates has sought bipartisan ground on Iraq in his dealings with Congress, and Mullen has a reputation for being fiercely apolitical.
The tougher rhetoric might reflect the shifting nature of threats inside Iraq. The U.S. military has weakened al-Qaida in Iraq and has reached cease-fire agreements with many former Sunni insurgents.
As those threats have receded, they have left Iranian-backed Shiite militant groups as the most serious threat to stability.
“It’s a reordering of challenges,” said Nathan Freier, a former adviser to the military in Iraq and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The reasoned military judgment is that armed Shiite groups that operate outside government control are posing a substantial challenge to making additional progress Iraq.”
Iran has built up influence with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it also has ties to the movement led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
To those in the Pentagon, recent fighting in Basra between al-Maliki’s government forces and armed groups associated with al-Sadr was a clear illustration of Iran’s ability to stir up violence and to clamp down on it.
Officers in Baghdad have complained about growing numbers of explosively formed penetrators, a particularly dangerous form of roadside bomb. U.S. military officers have long blamed Iran for the presence of those weapons in Iraq. In addition, officers have said Iranian-trained militants are responsible for the worst rocket and mortar attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Iranian officials publicly dismiss the U.S. charges. Iranian foreign ministry officials, including Tehran’s envoy to Baghdad, have condemned the shelling of the U.S.-protected Green Zone and praised al-Maliki’s offensive against militants in southern Iraq. They blame the U.S. military presence for Iraq’s troubles.
In his news conference Friday, Mullen voiced support for the view that Iran’s goals were to destabilize the Iraqi government.
“In long run, they prefer to see a weak Iraq neighbor,” Mullen said. “They have expressed long-term goals to be the regional power in that part of the world.”