US troops to target Iranian insurgents

President Bush has stepped up pressure against Teheran by authorizing US troops in Iraq to kill or capture Iranian operatives in the country deemed a threat, the White House said yesterday.

"If somebody's trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them," Mr Bush said, at a meeting with Lt. General David Petraeus, his new top commander on the ground in Iraq. "It's an obligation we all have ... to protect our folks and achieve our goal."

US officials said the more aggressive new policy reflected intelligence reports that Iran is supporting Shi'ite militias inside the country with weapons and training programmes that could harm American forces. A " quite striking" amount of Iranian weaponry, including roadside bombs or IEDs, was being used against US forces, General Michael Hayden, the CIA director, told Congress recently.

According to the Washington Post, which disclosed details of the new strategy yesterday, some 150 Iranian intelligence officers, as well as members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Command, were operating inside Iraq at any given time. But there have apparently been no instances where Iranian agents had themselves attacked US soldiers. Mr Bush yesterday moreover insisted that Washington had no plans to carry the fight across the border into Iran itself. "That's a presumption that's simply not accurate," he said.

The plan is said to have been approved by Mr Bush last autumn, as part of a strategy to push back Iranian influence in the region, and disrupt its support for Shi'ite groups, from Afghanistan in the east to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah in the West. It is intended to send two messages: that the US will not tolerate Iranian meddling in Iraq, and is absolutely determined to prevent Teheran acquiring the ability to build a nuclear weapon.

In fact, the President gave a broad hint of the new policy earlier this month, when he announced his controversial 'surge' of 21,500 troops in Iraq, when he warned that the US would confront Iran and Syria more vigorously. Almost as he spoke, US-led forces were detaining five Iranians in a raid on an Iranian government liaison office in Irbil, northern Iraq.

But Mr Bush repeated yesterday that he wanted a diplomatic solution to the confrontation. "We believe that we can solve our problem with Iran diplomatically and are working to do that," he said, claming that " we're making pretty good progress on that front."

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