WASHINGTON — Field investigations, serial number tracking, and interrogation transcripts helped convince a reluctant intelligence community and the Bush administration that Iran was a major factor in the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq.
After nearly two weeks of delays and last-minute modifications, three senior American officers in Baghdad yesterday presented a roomful of reporters with slides, old ordnance, and a briefing that accused the Iranian regime of culpability in the deaths of 170 soldiers.
The main culprit in the killings were 10-inch-long, 6-inch-wide pipes known as explosive formed projectiles, a roadside bomb capable of piercing the armor of America's Abrams tanks, according to the Associated Press.
The presentation, given on background and in Baghdad, appears to represent a step back from an earlier briefing planned for late January, following the announcement of the president's new policy to track down the supply lines Iranians have employed to provide insurgents with the bombs.
On February 2, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the White House had sent back an earlier draft of the presentation. Indeed, while the specific intelligence on the explosive formed projectiles is no longer disputed in the intelligence community, the CIA is questioning whether their export from Iran represents a strategy of the regime or the rogue actions of one of its security services, known as the Quds Force. According to reports from the briefing in Baghdad yesterday, American commanders said Iran's export of the bombs to Iraqi Shiite militias was a deliberate strategy of the regime, noting that the Quds Force reports directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to intelligence officials interviewed by The New York Sun over the last month, the trail leading to Iran began after military investigations of individual soldier deaths in 2005 turned up a pattern of the new roadside bombs and noted that their sophisticated design and deadly effect appeared to come from specialized equipment. From those investigations, the Treasury Department began tracking the serial numbers on the exploded bombs to a set of factories in Iran. As more of the investigations into the roadside deaths came in, "a pattern emerged back to Iran," an American intelligence analyst said.
But the issue was not settled in the intelligence community until late December, after the interrogation of senior Iranian members of the Quds Force, some of whom were captured in the compound of the Shiite Iraqi leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim. The Associated Press quoted a senior official in yesterday's briefing as saying most of the roadside bombs were made in 2006. The wire service also said Iranians captured in January at the Kurdish city of Erbil "were caught trying to flush documents down the toilet. ... They had also tried to change their appearance by shaving their heads. Bags of their hair were found during the raid."
While the background briefing yesterday is the most explicit evidence the Americans have given to date on the Iranian role in Iraq, officials say more intelligence was not shared because of political concerns here and in Iraq. "We have a lot of stuff pointing to individual Iranians. We are not getting into because it would make things very tense between us and the government," an American diplomat said last week. The official, who requested anonymity, added that there were concerns at the White House that any information that did not represent a consensus view of all 16 American intelligence agencies would be challenged by Democrats in Congress concerned that the new focus on Iran could be a pretext for a new war.
On the Sunday talk shows yesterday, Democrats expressed wariness about the new claims. Senator Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, said he has yet to receive a briefing from the White House or the intelligence community on the Iranian role in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq.
"I want the administration to deliver the full briefing that they promised," Mr. Wyden said on CNN. "We have had all this talk about a military surge. What is really needed in the region is a diplomatic surge and the country needs to hear that."
On CBS, Senator Dodd, a Democrat of Connecticut, said, "I am also concerned about some of these reports coming from intelligence analysts." He later added, "I look at this with a degree of skepticism based on the reports we've gotten in the past."
The intelligence presentation coincided with more nuclear brinksmanship between Iran and America. In celebrations yesterday commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, President Ahmadinejad promised to proceed with the country's nuclear program. At the same time, he did not, as some had expected, announce the installation of 3,000 new centrifuges in the country's enrichment facility at Natanz.
[Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported yesterday that a suicide truck bomber crashed into a police station near Tikrit, killing at least 30 policemen. A total of 76 people were killed or found dead across Iraq.]