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British fear US commander is beating the drum for Iran strikes

By Damien McElroy
Foreign Affairs Correspondent

04/04/08 "The Telegraph" -- -- British officials gave warning yesterday that America's commander in Iraq will declare that Iran is waging war against the US-backed Baghdad government.

A strong statement from General David Petraeus about Iran's intervention in Iraq could set the stage for a US attack on Iranian military facilities, according to a Whitehall assessment. In closely watched testimony in Washington next week, Gen Petraeus will state that the Iranian threat has risen as Tehran has supplied and directed attacks by militia fighters against the Iraqi state and its US allies.

The outbreak of Iraq's worst violence in 18 months last week with fighting in Basra and the daily bombardment of the Green Zone diplomatic enclave, demonstrated that although the Sunni Muslim insurgency is dramatically diminished, Shia forces remain in a strong position to destabilise the country.

"Petraeus is going to go very hard on Iran as the source of attacks on the American effort in Iraq," a British official said. "Iran is waging a war in Iraq. The idea that America can't fight a war on two fronts is wrong, there can be airstrikes and other moves," he said.

"Petraeus has put emphasis on America having to fight the battle on behalf of Iraq. In his report he can frame it in terms of our soldiers killed and diplomats dead in attacks on the Green Zone."

Tension between Washington and Tehran is already high over Iran's covert nuclear programme. The Bush administration has not ruled out military strikes.

In remarks interpreted as signalling a change in his approach to Iran, Gen Petraeus last week hit out at the Iranian leadership. "The rockets that were launched at the Green Zone were Iranian-provided, Iranian-made rockets," he said. "All of this in complete violation of promises made by President Ahmadinejad and the other most senior Iranian leaders to their Iraqi counterparts."

The humiliation of the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki by the Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in fighting in Basra last week triggered top-level warnings over Iran's strength in Iraq.

Gen Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, will answer questions from American political leaders at the US Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday before travelling to London to brief Gordon Brown.

The Wall Street Journal said last week that the US war effort in Iraq must have a double goal.

"The US must recognise that Iran is engaged in a full-up proxy war against it in Iraq," wrote the military analyst Kimberly Kagan.

There are signs that targeting Iran would unite American politicians across the bitter divide on Iraq. "Iran is the bull in the china shop," said Ike Skelton, the Democrat chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "In all of this, they seem to have links to all of the Shi'ite groups, whether they be political or military."

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