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Reports Say US Investigating Possible Iranian Involvement in Karbala Attack

U.S. media reports [New York Times, CNN] say the United States is investigating possible Iranian involvement in a recent attack that killed five American soldiers in Iraq's city of Karbala. As the Bush administration increases its pressure on Iran, some critics are warning against a drift toward military confrontation without hard evidence of hostile Iranian intentions. VOA’s Leta Hong Fincher has more.

At a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to be deputy secretary of state, national intelligence chief John Negroponte on Tuesday defended the Bush administration's increasing pressure on Iran.

"Iran has been emboldened in its behavior during the past couple of years and has played a more assertive role and that certainly manifests itself in Iraq, where we have increasing evidence that they have been providing lethal assistance to extremist Shia groups in that country," he told the senators.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama, a candidate for president in 2008, warned against drifting into hostilities with Iran without first pursuing diplomacy. The president's own Iraq Study Group has recommended direct talks with Iran over Iraq.

"You've got a policy that appears to be purposely somewhat ambiguous in terms of how the administration is going to pursue Iranians who are on Iraqi soil,” said Senator Obama. “This has led to grave concern on the part of many observers that we are stumbling into a more aggressive posture with respect to Iran."

The Bush administration has authorized U.S. forces to kill or capture Iranian agents who it says are plotting attacks in Iraq. Iran denies it is aiding the insurgents.

President Bush told the ABC television network Tuesday that the United States will take whatever action is necessary, but he emphasized that this does not mean he intends to invade Iran. "We're going to protect our troops. It's not tough talk to say that the commander-in-chief expects our troops to be protected. That's common sensical [sense] talk, it seems like to me. Some are trying to take my words and say: 'Well, what he's really trying to do is go invade Iran.' Nobody's talking about that."

Amidst increasing tensions with Iran, Mr. Bush recently announced he is sending a second aircraft carrier and supporting ships to the Persian Gulf.

Besides U.S. concerns about possible involvement in Iraq, the U.S accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this charge, too.

In regards to Iraq, critics say the Bush administration has not provided hard evidence that Iranians are involved in attacks on U.S. forces.

Anthony Cordesman is an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If the United States sees already a significant Iranian presence which aids the insurgency, weapons transfers, if there is hard evidence, then we're going to see a great deal more tension between the United States and Iran if Iran expands its role [within Iraq]," he says.

Cordesman points out that Iran has had ties to Shiite militias in Iraq for more than two decades, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He warns that Washington's missteps in the Iraq war have undermined its credibility in the Middle East.

"The United States doesn't have the kind of credibility to make vague statements about Iranian actions and intentions. People in the region simply -- after what happened with the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the problems in managing the war, the reconstruction effort, the whole tension between the United States and Iran -- will not give us the benefit of the doubt unless we are much more specific about what we're accusing Iran of."

Iran's ambassador to Iraq recently said Tehran plans to expand its military and economic ties with Baghdad.