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. US special forces inside Iran select sites for possible air strikes: report
WASHINGTON (AFP) Jan 17, 2005
Teams of US commandos have been operating inside Iran since last summer, selecting suspected weapons sites for possible air strikes, The New Yorker reported Monday.

The magazine's award-winning reporter Seymour Hersh, who last year exposed the extent of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, wrote that he was repeatedly told by US intelligence and military sources that "the next strategic target was Iran."

President George W. Bush has signed a series of orders authorizing commando groups to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia, the New Yorker said.

The Bush administration has been conducting secret spying missions inside Iran at least since mid-2004, gathering intelligence on declared and suspected nuclear, chemical and missile sites, it said.

"The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids," Hersh wrote.

"This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign," a former high-level government intelligence official told the magazine.

"The Bush administration is looking at this as a huge war zone. Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy," the official said.

A top government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told the magazine that Pentagon civilians -- especially Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz -- "want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible."

Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz believe that Iran's clerical regime could not withstand a military blow and would collapse, the magazine reports.

International allies are helping the Pentagon with its Iran plans, according to the magazine. Israeli consultants are helping develop potential weapons targets inside Iran. Pakistan is also involved.

Pakistani scientists are providing information to an American task force that is penetrating eastern Iran searching for underground nuclear installations, the magazine said.

In return, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has received guarantees that he will not have to hand over disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to international authorities for questioning.

Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme, in February took responsibility for transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

The New Yorker article went on to describe how the Bush White House has solidified control over US intelligence operations and how the Pentagon has finagled new powers to conduct covert operations without oversight from the US Congress or involvement by the CIA.

But White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett on Sunday called the Hersh article "riddled with inaccuracies" and said the administration was using diplomacy to address the Iran issue.

"We're working with our European allies to help convince the Iranian government to not pursue weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. We'll continue to work through the IAEA protocol to do just that," Bartlett said.

He was referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog.

"It's critical that the entire world focus on this issue. It is a threat that we have to take seriously, and we'll continue to work through the diplomatic initiatives that he set forth," Bartlett said on CNN.

But Hersh said administration hawks were convinced European negotiations will fail, and when they do, the United States will act -- possibly by mid-year.

"The next step is Iran. It's definitely there. They're definitely planning," Hersh told CNN.

In the meantime the Pentagon is trying to get reliable information on Iranian weapon sites, to avoid the embarrassment of the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

"We don't want another WMD flap. We want to be sure we have the right information," he said.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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