WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials from President Bush to a top general in Baghdad said yesterday that there was no solid evidence that top officials in Tehran had ordered deadly weapons to be sent to Iraq for use against Americans soldiers, backing away from claims made at a Baghdad presentation by military and intelligence officials earlier this week.
But Bush continued to maintain an aggressive posture toward Tehran, insisting that elite Iranian Quds Forces operatives were supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
"What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did," he said.
"What matters is that they're there. What's worse: that the government knew or that the government didn't know?"
Bush issued a threat that held the possibility of a direct clash with Iranian units. "When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq," he said at a White House news conference, "we will deal with them."
Quds is a special forces unit of the Revolutionary Guard, a separate force from Iran's military, created to spread the 1979 revolution that established Shiite clerical rule in Iran.
Critics in recent days have accused the administration of overstating claims of official Iranian involvement in Iraq's violence. On Sunday, U.S. officials in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity alleged that Iranian officials at the "highest levels" of the government in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were behind the smuggling of a deadly type of explosive devices used against U.S. forces in Iraq.
But during news conferences in Washington and Baghdad yesterday, Bush and Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, appeared to step back from that claim, just as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace did in an overseas interview earlier this week.
Caldwell characterized the recent statements about Iranian arms in Iraq as a diplomatic endeavor to persuade Iranians to stop the flow of such weapons.
"We want to tell [the Iranians], `You need to stop,'" he said.
The controversy surrounding the weapons claims revolves around the nature of wartime intelligence work, which often requires reaching conclusions based on classified information, confidential sources, circumstantial inferences and historical patterns rather than the type of evidence that could prove a court case.
At a presentation Sunday, U.S. officials showed reporters weapons found in Iraq that they said had been made in Iran. But they spoke on condition of anonymity and barred reporters from bringing cameras or recorders. The unusual secrecy, amid several Washington investigations into abuses of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, raised as many questions about U.S. motives as about Iranian actions.
Yesterday, U.S. officials allowed photographers to scrutinize the evidence. That included rockets with recent date marks that they said could be traced to munitions factories in Iran, as well as an explosively formed penetrator, a sophisticated roadside bomb that can pierce armor on U.S. vehicles.
Officials said the projectiles, which on Sunday they said have led to the deaths of about 170 U.S.-led forces in Iraq, have been used by Shiite Muslim militias that have long-standing ties to Iran.
Also on display yesterday were identification cards seized from Iranians allegedly linked to the Quds Force. One identification card, belonging to a middle-aged man in military uniform, said he worked for the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards, which mostly is involved in domestic Iranian security matters.
"We're not trying to hype this," Caldwell said.
In Washington, the president bristled when questioned whether he was using such displays to provoke Iran, much as he used intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida that turned out to be flawed.
"To say it is `provoking Iran' is just a wrong way to characterize the commander in chief's decision to do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm's way," Bush said.
"The idea that somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs [improvised explosive devices] is preposterous."
Borzou Daragahi and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.