As one U.S. official accurately described the policy: “We were bending over backwards not to fight back.”
“Troops Authorized to Kill Iranian Operatives in Iraq,” by Dafna Linzer for the Washington Post:
The Bush administration has authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy to weaken Tehran’s influence across the Middle East and compel it to give up its nuclear program, according to government and counterterrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort.
For more than a year, U.S. forces in Iraq have secretly detained dozens of suspected Iranian agents, holding them for three to four days at a time. The “catch and release” policy was designed to avoid escalating tensions with Iran and yet intimidate
its emissaries. U.S. forces collected DNA samples from some of the Iranians without their knowledge, subjected others to retina scans, and fingerprinted and photographed all of them before letting them go.
Last summer, however, senior administration officials decided that a more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran’s regional influence grew and U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be failing. The country’s nuclear work was advancing, U.S. allies were resisting robust sanctions against the Tehran government, and Iran was aggravating sectarian violence in Iraq.
“There were no costs for the Iranians,” said one senior administration official. “They are hurting our mission in Iraq, and we were bending over backwards not to fight back.”
Three officials said that about 150 Iranian intelligence officers, plus members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Command, are believed to be active inside Iraq at any given time. There is no evidence the Iranians have directly attacked U.S. troops in Iraq, intelligence officials said.
But, for three years, the Iranians have operated an embedding program there, offering operational training, intelligence and weaponry to several Shiite militias connected to the Iraqi government, to the insurgency and to the violence against Sunni factions. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the CIA, told the Senate recently that the amount of Iranian-supplied materiel used against U.S. troops in Iraq “has been quite striking.”
“Iran seems to be conducting a foreign policy with a sense of dangerous triumphalism,” Hayden said.
Information gleaned through the “catch and release” policy expanded what was once a limited intelligence community database on Iranians in Iraq. It also helped to avert a crisis between the United States and the Iraqi government over whether U.S. troops should be holding Iranians, several officials said, and dampened the possibility of Iranians directly targeting U.S. personnel in retaliation.
But senior officials saw it as too timid.
“We were making no traction” with “catch and release,” a senior counterterrorism official said in a recent interview, explaining that it had failed to halt Iranian activities in Iraq or worry the Tehran leadership. “Our goal is to change the dynamic with the Iranians, to change the way the Iranians perceive us and perceive themselves. They need to understand that they cannot be a party to endangering U.S. soldiers’ lives and American interests, as they have before. That is going to end.”
A senior intelligence officer was more wary of the ambitions of the strategy.
“This has little to do with Iraq. It’s all about pushing Iran’s buttons. It is purely political,” the official said. The official expressed similar views about other new efforts aimed at Iran, suggesting that the United States is escalating toward an unnecessary conflict to shift attention away from Iraq and to blame Iran for the United States’ increasing inability to stanch the violence there.
But some officials within the Bush administration say that targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Command, and specifically a Guard unit known as the Quds Force, should be as much a priority as fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Quds Force is considered by Western
intelligence to be directed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to support Iraqi militias, Hamas and Hezbollah.
In interviews, two senior administration officials separately compared the Tehran government to the Nazis and the Guard to the “SS.” They also referred to Guard members as “terrorists.” Such a formal designation could turn Iran’s military into a target
of what Bush calls a “war on terror,” with its members potentially held as enemy combatants or in secret CIA detention.
Asked whether such a designation is imminent, Johndroe of the NSC said in a written response that the administration has “long been concerned about the activities of the IRGC and its components throughout the Middle East and beyond.” He added: “The Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Quds Force is a part of the Iranian state apparatus that supports and carries out these activities.”