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The New York Times February 26, 2007

U.S. Says Raid in Iraq Supports Claim on Iran

By James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr.

BAGHDAD, Feb. 25 — A raid on a Shiite weapons cache in the southern city of Hilla one week ago is providing what American officials call the best evidence yet that the deadliest roadside bombs in Iraq are manufactured in Iran, but critics contend that the forensic case remains circumstantial and inferential.

The new evidence includes infrared sensors, electronic triggering devices and information about plastic explosives used in bombs that the Americans say lead back to Iran. The explosive material, triggering devices, other components and the method of assembly all produce weapons with an Iranian signature that has never been found outside Iraq or southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is believed to have used weapons supplied by Iran, the Americans say.

But critics assert that nearly all the bomb components could have been produced in Iraq or somewhere else in the region. Even if the evidence were to establish that Iran is the source, they add, that does not necessarily mean that the Iranian leadership is responsible.

The raid by American and Iraqi forces discovered a fake boulder made of polyurethane and containing three of the deadliest kind of roadside bombs in Iraq. Smeared with dirt and pebbles to give it the color and texture of a rock, the polyurethane blob was resting in the back seat of a Toyota, apparently in preparation for a roadside attack, American officials said in lengthy briefings with two New York Times reporters last week.

The Toyota, along with a second vehicle and a nearby house described as an assembly point, contained components and other weaponry that the officials say demonstrate that the bomb parts must have originated in Iran. Called explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s, bombs like the ones hidden inside the fake boulder are designed to eject molten slugs that slice through American armor with deadly precision.

The assertion that the latest find greatly bolsters the theory of the Iranian origin of the E.F.P.’s is significant because it could provide the United States with a new justification to take action against Iran. But the evidence is unlikely to satisfy skeptics who have been suspicious that the Bush administration is trying to lay the groundwork for isolating or even attacking Iran. They point to the flawed intelligence used by the administration to accuse Saddam Hussein of harboring unconventional weapons before invading Iraq nearly four years ago.

Still, American military officials appear to be making an attempt to respond to critics who say the evidence is inconclusive. In the course of the detailed briefing on the Hilla discovery, Maj. Marty Weber, an explosives expert, said that most of the E.F.P.’s in Iraq use C-4 plastic explosive manufactured in Iran. At the request of the Bush administration, The Times is withholding some specific details about the weapons to protect intelligence sources and methods.

In addition to the Hilla discovery, military officials are expected to disclose at a briefing on Monday details about materials found in a raid in Diyala Province, the mixed Sunni-Shiite battleground north of Baghdad, that, according to one military official, included enough components to make more than 100 E.F.P.’s. The official asked not to be identified because the matter is so sensitive.

All of the items found in the Hilla raid have been used by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, said Major Weber, a master explosives ordnance technician who has studied many kinds of improvised bombs in the Middle East and elsewhere and is closely involved in the effort in Iraq.

In addition, the shallow concave caps, which are made of copper and change into armor-piercing balls when the E.F.P.’s explode, were smooth and flawless, indicating to the explosives expert that they were manufactured in Iran because of the high precision required to make them so. Also found during the raid were 10 107-millimeter Strella rockets that had Iranian markings.

A Question of Technology

The most specialized part of the E.F.P.’s that were found is the concave copper disc, called a liner, that rolls into a deadly armor-piercing ball when the device explodes. Although American explosives experts say that the liner is deceptively difficult to make properly, the discs in Hilla look like a thick little alms plate or even a souvenir ashtray minus the indentations for holding cigarettes.

The electronics package is built around everyday items like the motion sensors used in garage-door openers and outdoor security systems; in fact, at the heart of some of the bombs found in Iraq is a type of infrared sensor commonly sold at electronic stores like RadioShack.

Major Weber said the use of precision copper discs combined with passive infrared sensors amounted to “a no-brainer” that the explosive components were of Iranian origin, because no one has used that sort of configuration except Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Could copper discs be manufactured with the required precision in Iraq? “You can never be certain,” Major Weber said. But he said that “having studied all these groups, I’ve only seen E.F.P.’s used in two areas of the world: The Levant and here,” meaning in Hezbollah areas of Lebanon and in Iraq. Hezbollah is thought to be armed and trained by Iran.

Skeptics say the new details do not support a conclusion that only Iran could be providing the components. “Iran may well be involved in the supply of these weapons, but so far they haven’t proved it,” said Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for National Security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and advocacy organization.

“Before we act on the assumption that these are Iranian we’ve got to rule out all these other possibilities,” he said. “The military hasn’t done that.”

He noted that a related weapon, the shape charge, “has been around for decades.

“This is not new stuff,” he continued. “There is a vast international arms market selling shape charges from many countries.”

New Details

The new information is more substantial than the limited details disclosed earlier this month in Baghdad, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research group based in Alexandria, Va.

“That initial briefing was not much to write home about,” Mr. Pike said. “The points that they are making here are rather more convincing. Whether they’re true is a completely different question.”

Mr. Pike said he was not swayed by arguments that the copper discs could only be made by equipment in Iran. All that is required are machine tools, he said. “You can buy them,” he said. “I mean, look at all those cylinders people use for L.P.G. cooking gas. Do you think they are all imported from Iran? Probably not. I bet there are guys all over Iraq who make those things for a living.”

But he found other details more persuasive. “The two points they are making about the tradecraft of the fuse and the wrappings of the explosives, those are pretty good pieces of evidence,” he said. “I will say that, totally apart from any of this evidence, I would be astonished if Iran was not providing military support to the Shia militias. It should be self-evident that they are doing that.”

Afternoon Attack

American officials gave this account of the Hilla raid:

It took place at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 17 after an informant reported seeing a tow truck carrying rockets.

The fake rock with three E.F.P. canisters inside was sitting on the back seat of a different vehicle, a Toyota Crown. The trunk of the same car contained various equipment including an infrared sensor, a G.P.S. unit, two compasses and a jug filled with an unknown explosive.

Tools and materials for making fake rocks were found inside the house along with a partly completed rock and two E.F.P.’s. Among the items found there were seven battery packs needed to set off the blasting caps that initiate the E.F.P. explosion, four cans of epoxy foam and three of the infrared sensors.

The E.F.P.’s were designed to inflict maximum damage. The positioning of the sensor and the exact angles of the E.F.P.’s inside the rock were fixed to find weak points in American armored vehicles like Humvees and Strykers.

“The E.F.P. canisters are typically arrayed at angles to minimize the effects of countermeasures,” Major Weber said. “They want to hit the truck when it is already well into the kill zone.”

The infrared sensors could be armed and disarmed at a distance with cellphones, long-distance cordless phones or radios. That allows the attackers to arm the devices only when convoys are approaching. Then, when the convoys trip the sensors, the E.F.P.’s explode.

Major Weber said many of those techniques were clearly Iranian in origin. Critics said that all of them could be replicated by skilled Iraqis or others in the Middle East with a solid knowledge of electronics and basic manufacturing techniques.

Still, Major Weber said, there were other indications of Iranian involvement in Hilla. In the raid, the Iraqi and American troops also found a red 1988 Chevy tow truck carrying 10 Strella rockets under a false bottom in the bed. The rockets had MJ-1 contact fuses and were probably made in China and repainted with Iranian markings — the usual practice for weapons that Iran imports and re-sells. Following international convention, the markings were in English, not Persian. They indicated that the rockets had been made in 2005 and each carried 18 kilograms of explosive.

As to why the Iranians would leave such obvious markings on the shells, Major Weber speculated that they had simply been taken out of stock and shipped across the border.

Comparisons to Others

Major Weber said he doubted that Hezbollah — the group that the Mahdi militia leader Moktada al-Sadr has used as a model for his political movement — would have provided the material and technology to the Mahdi militia or to other Shiite fighters in Iraq. “It is possible, but based upon my experience we have not seen Hezbollah share information or technology on anything until they have been told to,” he said.

“The E.F.P. is their silver bullet,” he said, referring to Iran and its allied militias.

Major Weber also said that the use of passive infrared sensors, or P.I.R.’s, was one of the strongest markers of Iranian involvement, based on years of experience indicating that only Iranian-backed groups employ the sensors in that manner. But he also acknowledged that the electronic components needed to make the sensors were easily available off the shelf at places like RadioShack.

Those components are used in commercial products, like motion sensors for a lighting system or garage door openers. Those products are opened up, rewired and repackaged. Sometimes on products requiring the triggering of multiple beams to close the circuit, masking tape is used to cover up some beams so that only one is triggered.

“Every P.I.R. in Iraq has been RadioShack, Digigard or Everspring,” Major Weber said. “But in southern Lebanon I never saw them use RadioShack.”

While he maintained that the copper liner also required specialized equipment and skills to make properly, that assertion also rests on some rather subtle distinctions. A senior military official displayed pictures of a stack of some 30 copper E.F.P. liners seized in a raid in Mahmudiya, a town south of Baghdad. Such liners, Major Weber said, were “copycats” stamped in Iraq, not Iran. To the untrained eye, the liners initially looked identical to the genuine ones.

But Major Weber then pointed out that there were often slightly visible cracks forming circles around the tops of the liners when they were set on a table with their concave sides pointing down. Those imperfections were signs that the liners had been made in Iraq, Major Weber said. And because of the imperfections, he said, an E.F.P. made with them would be much less deadly. Such an E.F.P. would fragment rather than curl into a ball, he said, and the fragments would be much less likely to pierce armor.

Michael R. Gordon and Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.


Copyright 2007, The New York Times Company