BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Officials of the U.S.-led coalition on Sunday showed what they said were examples of Iranian weapons used to kill 170 of their soldiers and implicated high-level Iranian involvement in training Iraqi militants.
A senior defense official from the U.S.-led Multinational Force in Baghdad told a briefing that 170 coalition troops had been killed by Iranian-made roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that he said were smuggled into Iraq.
Officials showed reporters fragments of what they said were Iranian-manufactured weapons, including one part of an EFP — which is strong enough to penetrate the armor of an Abrams tank — and parts of 81 mm and 60 mm mortar bombs.
The United States accuses Iran of fanning violence in Iraq by giving sophisticated bomb-making technology, money and training to militant Shi’ite groups, some of whom have links with Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government. Iran denies the allegation.
The three defense officials spoke on condition they not be identified.
Washington has hardened its rhetoric over Iran’s alleged role in the war in Iraq and tension has been growing between the two arch-foes over Tehran’s nuclear plans.
“The weapons had characteristics unique to being manufactured in Iran...Iran is the only country in the region that produces these weapons,” the senior defense official said.
The officials said they were showing the evidence, including a slide of an Iranian-made shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, out of concern over a vast increase in weapons used by Iraqi militants against U.S. forces in 2006.
“We assess these activities are coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government,” said the senior defense analyst, referring to the alleged training of Iraqi militants by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force.
The U.S. military has seized several Iranians in Iraq in the past two months, including five in the northern city of Arbil on suspicion that they are members of the Qods Force.
Iran does not officially acknowledge the group’s existence but the analyst said it reports directly to Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Despite the briefing, the senior defense analyst said there was no “smoking gun” linking Tehran and Iraqi militants and Iraqi smugglers were bringing in the components.
Tehran blames U.S. soldiers for the violence in Iraq and for inflaming tension between majority Shi’ites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs.
“We are a friend of Iraq. We have common culture and history, and Iraq’s stability, security and integrity, means Iran’s stability, security and integrity,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tehran on Sunday marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The officials also said Iran had several surrogate groups operating in Iraq using EFPs, among them rogue elements of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. Those elements were getting weapons and guerrilla warfare training.
The Pentagon calls the Mehdi Army the biggest threat to peace in Iraq. Sadr, who is a key political ally of the Iraqi prime minister, denies any involvement in attacks on troops.
Non-Arab, Shi’ite Iran resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed from power by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Washington, which says Tehran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb under the cover of an atomic energy program, has an aircraft carrier group stationed in the Gulf and is sending a second. Tehran says its nuclear program has civilian goals.
President George W. Bush has said he has no intention of invading Iran. However, some war critics say the Bush administration’s language on Iran echoes comments made leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The main justification given for that operation was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but the weapons were never found and Washington later blamed faulty intelligence.
Given the criticism that dogs Bush over the handling of the intelligence, U.S. officials have been careful in preparing the dossier to support claims that Iran is meddling in Iraq.
Elsewhere, Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces would step up their deployment in Baghdad this week as part of a U.S.-backed offensive against militants.
In fresh violence, a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives killed at least 15 people when he attacked a police station north of Baghdad.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Mariam Karouny in Baghdad and Edmund Blair in Tehran