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Friday, January 12, 2007

'Shadow' of Iran growing, spy czar says


U.S. intelligence chief Negroponte expresses a new level of concern over the country's abilities and intentions.

By Greg Miller, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Iran has exploited the war in Iraq and a proxy fight with Israel to emerge as a more powerful and confident foe of the United States and is casting a growing "shadow" of influence across the Middle East, the nation's top intelligence official testified Thursday.

During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on national security threats, National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte and other officials expressed a new level of concern over Iran's capabilities and intentions, saying the Islamic regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons was only one element of its increasingly aggressive behavior.

"Iran's influence is rising in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program," said Negroponte, ticking off several developments that had emboldened the country in the last year.

Among them, he said, was an increase in oil revenue that allowed greater funding of terrorist activities, and a belief in Iran and Lebanon that Hezbollah — the Tehran-sponsored militant group based in Lebanon — was the victor in heavy fighting with Israel last summer.

Iran "regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy," Negroponte said, adding that Hezbollah, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization, "could decide to conduct attacks against U.S. interests if it feels its survival — or that of Iran — is threatened."

His testimony comes at a crucial juncture in the long-strained relationship between the United States and Iran, as the Bush administration struggles for ways to derail Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and curb its interference in the Iraq war. Iran's Shiite Muslim government is a strong supporter of Iraqi Shiite militias involved in sectarian violence.

Indeed, U.S. forces took six Iranian nationals into custody in Iraq on Thursday, while lawmakers in Washington used three separate Capitol Hill hearings to express their concerns that President Bush's plan to deploy 21,500 more troops to Iraq in an effort to stabilize the country could lead to a military confrontation with Iran.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the panel's chairman, pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to say whether the administration believed it had authority to invade Iran without congressional approval — a question Rice declined to answer.

She said that the goal was to protect U.S. troops, and that "we believe we can do what we need to do inside Iraq." She added, however, that "obviously, the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect the troops. But the plan is to take these networks down in Iraq."

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Vietnam veteran, told Rice he feared the new Bush strategy could lead to an invasion of Iran, which the administration might justify as necessary to track down militia supporters. He recalled that the Nixon administration secretly ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

The Bush plan, Hagel said, "represents the most dangerous policy blunder since Vietnam, if it's carried out."

In his appearance before the intelligence panel, Negroponte described an array of evolving threats to the United States, including North Korea's recent missile tests, which demonstrate Pyongyang's ongoing pursuit of weapons capable of striking North America, and indications that Al Qaeda is gaining strength.

The hearing was probably Negroponte's last as the nation's intelligence chief. He has been nominated to the No. 2 position at the State Department. The session was also the first in several years in which Democrats held the majority.

Intelligence panel Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) used his opening remarks to chastise the White House for what he called its "misguided" policies on Iraq. He promised an aggressive schedule of hearings on such controversial programs as the CIA-run secret prison network and the National Security Agency's wiretapping of international communications involving terrorism suspects in the United States.

Much of the hearing focused on the situation in Iraq, which Negroponte described as at a "precarious juncture."

Senators from both parties voiced varying degrees of skepticism about Bush's new strategy, with Democrats sharply critical of both the current situation and the flawed intelligence used to justify the invasion nearly four years ago.

"We're very far from the 'slam dunk' your predecessor promised," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), referring to former CIA Director George J. Tenet's certainty, expressed in a comment to Bush weeks before the invasion, that Iraq possessed banned weapons. "We're also very far from the 'mission accomplished' that the president promised us."

Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq as "the primary counter to a breakdown in central authority" in the country, and said that most Iraqis "recall a past in which sectarian identity did not have the significance it does today."

But the intelligence officials seemed to largely agree with the White House argument that leaving Iraq would risk a wave of instability across the Middle East and a rising terrorist threat to the United States.

"If we leave under the current circumstances, everything gets worse," said CIA Director Michael V. Hayden. In that scenario, he added, Iraq could become a safe haven for Al Qaeda that would be "perhaps more dangerous than the one they had in Afghanistan."

Iran and Syria are fueling the fighting in Iraq, the officials contended.

Negroponte said that "40 to 70" foreign fighters enter Iraq each month through Syria, and that "many, if not most, of those are suicide bombers." Iran has provided money, support and deadly munitions to Shiite groups, including so-called "explosively formed projectiles," capable of ripping through heavy armor, that are supplanting ordinary roadside bombs as a major threat to U.S. troops.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that the United States had stepped up efforts to counter Iranian support for the Shiite militias.

"We are beginning to move aggressively to try and identify and root out the networks that are involved in helping to bring Iranian-supplied [bombs] into Iraq," Gates said, "and making it clear that those who are involved in activities that cost the lives of American soldiers are going to be subject to actions on the part of the United States inside Iraq."


Times staff writers Josh Meyer and Paul Richter contributed to this report.
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