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US Intelligence Officials Offer Sober Assessment of Iraq

Top U.S. intelligence officials told a Senate panel that it is probable that Iranian leaders were aware that Iranian-made weapons were being used against U.S. troops in Iraq. But they said they could not directly link the Iranian government to such attacks, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, National Intelligence Director John M. (Mike) McConnell said the intelligence community has evidence that an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards known as the Quds Force smuggled Iranian-made weapons into Iraq.

But in response to questioning by the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, McConnell could not say whether the Iranian government was directly involved in the smuggling of the weapons, which include armor-piercing munitions used in roadside bombs.

MCCONNELL: "If the question is, is there a direct link from Quds forces delivering weapons to the senior leadership in Iran, we do not have evidence that there is or isn't. my assessment would be that that would be with the awareness of the leadership, but that there is not a direct link we can point to."

LEVIN: "Without a direct link, would it be not your assessment that it is probable that the top leaders in Iran would know of that activity?"

MCCONNELL: "Yes, sir, exactly. I would phrase it as probable, but no direct link."

Iran has denied supplying the weapons to Iraq.

McConnell, who made his first appearance before a congressional committee since being sworn in as the nation's top intelligence official last week, was joined at the hearing by the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lieutenant General Michael Maples.

Maples testified that there is evidence that Iran is training Iraqi militias in the use of such Iranian-made weapons. He made his comments in response to questioning by Senator Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat:

LIEBERMAN: "Do we have evidence that the Iranians are training Iraqi militia or extremists or terrorists in the use of these weapons outside of Iraq, General Maples?"

MAPLES: "Yes, sir, we do."

LIEBERMAN: "We do. Some of that training is occurring in Iran?"

MAPLES: "Yes, sir."

LIEBERMAN: "Am I right - I heard reports - that some of that training is taking place in Lebanon at Hezbollah training camps?"

MAPLES: "We believe that Hezbollah is involved in the training as well."

General Maples offered a sober assessment of the violence in Iraq. He said the perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear, hardening sectarianism, empowering militias and vigilante groups, and undermining the confidence of the government and security forces. He said conflict in Iraq is in a self-sustaining cycle, in which violent acts increasingly generate retaliation.

General Maples said it is too soon to assess the impact of a new security plan put in place in Baghdad, supported by thousands of additional U.S. troops.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee later in the day, sounded a bit more upbeat.

"I have every confidence in our troops and in our generals," he said. "I am watching to see how the Iraqis perform. So far, so good."

Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Appropriations Committee to urge lawmakers to approve President Bush's $99.6 - billion request for the global war on terrorism, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the next six months.

Meanwhile, top Senate Democrats have postponed a debate on repealing President Bush's 2002 Iraq war authorization. Senate Democrats were considering attaching the measure to a bill implementing the rest of the homeland security proposals recommended by the bipartisan commission that probed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. But they have abandoned that idea out of deference to the families of the victims of the attacks, who were concerned the Iraq debate could bog down the legislation.

Majority Leader Harry Reid:

"We are going to do our utmost to finish [the] 9/11 [commission proposals] before we move to Iraq again," said Harry Reid. "This is based on requests I have gotten from the 9/11 widows, orphans and survivors generally."

The measure to revoke the 2002 war authorization is being sponsored by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden.