U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there is no new policy on targeting Iranian operatives in Iraq, as reported Friday by the Washington Post. But he says U.S. forces will target any foreign fighter trying to kill them. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Secretary Gates told his first Pentagon news conference that Friday's Washington Post story has "a number of inaccuracies." The article says there is a new policy under which U.S. troops are authorized to capture or kill Iranian operatives, if necessary. It says the past policy was to release any captured Iranians after a few days. The Post says the new orders are part of an aggressive new approach to weaken Iran's influence Iraq.
Secretary Gates disagreed.
"It's not clear to me it is different," he said. "I'm not aware of any change in the sense of our forces having the authority to go after those who are attempting to kill Americans, any foreign fighter in Iraq who's trying to kill Americans."
Secretary Gates spoke after meeting with President Bush and the new Iraq commander, Lieutenant General David Petraeus. At the end of that meeting, President Bush said he had made clear what his force protection policy is.
"Our policy is going to be to protect our troops in Iraq. This makes sense, that if somebody is going to try to harm our troops or stop us from achieving our goal or killing innocent citizens in Iraq that we will stop that," he said.
U.S. officials say they have no evidence that Iranian forces have directly attacked U.S. troops in Iraq. But they say the Iranians provide advice and material for various terrorist and militia factions that do attack both U.S. and Iraqi targets. Secretary Gates said he is particularly concerned about Iranian help in the development and construction of sophisticated, high-powered bombs that have been the main killer of U.S. forces. The military refers to the bombs as Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs.
"We are trying to uproot these networks that are planting IEDs, that are causing 70 percent of our casualties," Gates said. "And if you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target. We're not simply going to stand by and let people bring sophisticated IEDs into the country that can disable an Abrams tank, and give them a free pass."
The Washington Post quotes unnamed U.S. officials as saying there are 150 Iranian intelligence operatives in Iraq. Secretary Gates said he has "no idea" how many there are, but that U.S. forces will target them if they support violent groups.
The Pentagon confirmed Friday it is still holding five Iranians captured two weeks ago in the northern town of Irbil and suspected of supporting violent activities. Those detainees have claimed diplomatic immunity.
Both President Bush and Secretary Gates said the U.S. approach to Iranian activities in Iraq will not result in any direct U.S. military action aimed at Iran.
Secretary Gates also said he expects all of the promised 21,000 additional U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq, and he has asked for the process to be expedited. He reports that General Petraeus says he needs all the troops, and he will get them. Previously, U.S. officials had said the deployment would be gradual, and dependent on Iraq's government and military living up to their commitments under the new Baghdad security plan.
The secretary also said the plan to increase the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf region with the addition of a second aircraft carrier strike group is aimed at making clear to U.S. friends and adversaries that stability in the region is important to the United States. He said the move is designed to reassure U.S. friends, and to remind U.S. adversaries they will have to deal with the United States "if they choose to become aggressive." The move has been widely interpreted as show of force aimed at Iran, as part of an effort to convince the country's government to stop interfering in Iraq and to stop developing nuclear weapons.