British Find No Evidence Of
Arms Traffic From Iran
Troops in Southeast Iraq Test U.S. Claim of Aid for
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Post" --- - ON THE IRAQ-IRAN BORDER
-- Since late August, British commandos in the deserts
of far southeastern Iraq have been testing one of the
most serious charges leveled by the United States
against Iran: that Iran is secretly supplying weapons,
parts, funding and training for attacks on U.S.-led
forces in Iraq.
A few hundred British troops living out of nothing more
than their cut-down Land Rovers and light armored
vehicles have taken to the desert in the start of what
British officers said would be months of patrols aimed
at finding the illicit weapons trafficking from Iran, or
any sign of it.
There's just one thing.
"I suspect there's nothing out there," the commander,
Lt. Col. David Labouchere, said last month, speaking at
an overnight camp near the border. "And I intend to
Other senior British military leaders spoke as
explicitly in interviews over the previous two months.
Britain, whose forces have had responsibility for
security in southeastern Iraq since the war began, has
found nothing to support the Americans' contention that
Iran is providing weapons and training in Iraq, several
senior military officials said.
"I have not myself seen any evidence -- and I don't
think any evidence exists -- of government-supported or
instigated" armed support on Iran's part in Iraq,
British Defense Secretary Des Browne said in an
interview in Baghdad in late August.
"It's a question of intelligence versus evidence,"
Labouchere's commander, Brig. James Everard of Britain's
20th Armored Brigade, said last month at his base in the
southern region's capital, Basra. "One hears word of
mouth, but one has to see it with one's own eyes. These
are serious consequences, aren't they?"
They are. Allegations that Iran or its agents are
providing military support for Iraqi Shiite Muslim
militias and other armed groups is one of the most
contentious issues raising tensions between Washington
and Tehran. Most gravely, U.S. generals and diplomats
accuse Iran of providing infrared triggers for special
explosives that are capable of piercing heavy armor.
Evidence of Iranian armed intervention in Iraq is
"irrefutable," one U.S. commander in Iraq, Brig. Gen.
Michael Barbero, told Pentagon reporters in August. The
lead U.S. military spokesman in Iraq renews the
allegation almost weekly in Baghdad.
Iraq's remote Maysan province is "a funnel for Iranian
munitions," said Wayne White, who led the State
Department's Iraq intelligence team during the war and
now is an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle
East Institute. White said that in the first year of the
occupation a well-placed friend had seen "considerable
physical evidence of it, and just about everyone in al-Amarah
knew about it." Al-Amarah is the commonly used name of
Here in Maysan, Jasim Alawa Salum, an Iraqi father of 10
whose home is in a warren of thatched farmhouses near
the border, agreed. "All troubles come from Iran," he
said, bending his head to show a wound from the 1980s
But Maj. Dominic Roberts of the Queen's Dragoons said:
"We have found no credible evidence to suggest there is
weapons smuggling across the border."
Asked why he could declare himself so confident that no
arms were coming through, Labouchere mildly cited his
confidence in Iraq's border force.
Guards at one of the 27 border forts now used to guard
Maysan were dismissive of talk of military support from
Iran. "It's just fabrication," insisted one, Haidar
At one crossroads checkpoint, two border guards grinned
awkwardly when a British desert patrol stopped in. No
smugglers had come by, no untoward travelers, no
problems, the guards said. The guards, however, come
from tribes with a history of smuggling, and since the
fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi border workers have
redoubled their reputation for taking bribes.
To determine the truth of the charges, British
commanders say, the British troops did something no
other large-scale conventional unit in the U.S.-led
coalition here has tried. They gave up their base.
Almost every night for months, rockets and mortar rounds
had pounded Abu Naji, the outpost where British forces
made their home outside Amarah, Maysan's provincial
capital. In the base's last five months of use, 281
rockets or mortar rounds hit Abu Naji, Labouchere said.
Young soldiers would slip out of base at night to try to
find the attackers. They would return in the morning as
frustrated as when they left, he said. "The boys felt
they were powerless," Labouchere said.
So the British forces packed up. The night before they
left, mortars gave Abu Naji a farewell pounding.
About 5,000 townspeople gathered at the gates of Abu
Naji on Aug. 24. When British troops pulled out that
afternoon, the mobs moved in. Iraqi forces briefly tried
to hold back the crowds, then gave way, said Maj.
Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman at
Basra. The mobs looted the base down to the bricks.
"This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the
occupier!" loudspeakers at the local offices of Shiite
cleric Moqtada al-Sadr trumpeted.
In their new mission, the British spread out over a
desert carpeted with shrapnel, the legacy of the
eight-year Iran-Iraq war that claimed the bulk of its 1
million dead here in the deserts of Maysan. Pressing all
hands into duty, a former tank crewman became a medic;
the regiment chaplain took the wheel as a fuel tanker
If trouble in most of Iraq had inevitably followed
foreign soldiers, the soldiers in Maysan didn't seem to
hear anything coming. Attackers had lobbed a rocket or
mortar round at them during their first week in the
desert, but there had been nothing since, they said.
At the least, Labouchere said, "I am satisfied our
presence will reduce" the dangers for the rest of Iraq.
Ultimately, however, the British can do little more than
demonstrate that the borders are closed, Labouchere
said. Save for that, he said, they find themselves
trying "to prove a negative."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company