The United States is moving closer to war with Iran by accusing the "highest levels" of the Iranian government of supplying sophisticated roadside bombs that have killed 170 US troops and wounded 620.
The allegations against Iran are similar in tone and credibility to those made four years ago by the US government about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the invasion of 2003.
Senior US defence officials in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed the bombs were manufactured in Iran and smuggled across the border to Shia militants in Iraq. The weapons, identified as "explosively formed penetrators" (EFPs) are said to be capable of destroying an Abrams tank.
The officials speaking in Baghdad used aggressive rhetoric suggesting that Washington wants to ratchet up its confrontation with Tehran. It has not ruled out using armed force and has sent a second carrier task force to the Gulf.
"We assess that these activities are coming from senior levels of the Iranian government," said an official in Baghdad, charging that the explosive devices come from the al-Quds Brigade and noting that it answers to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. This is the first time the US has openly accused the Iranian government of being involved in sending weapons that kill Americans to Iraq.
The allegations by senior but unnamed US officials in Baghdad and Washington are bizarre. The US has been fighting a Sunni insurgency in Iraq since 2003 that is deeply hostile to Iran.
The insurgent groups have repeatedly denounced the democratically elected Iraqi government as pawns of Iran. It is unlikely that the Sunni guerrillas have received significant quantities of military equipment from Tehran. Some 1,190 US soldiers have been killed by so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But most of them consist of heavy artillery shells (often 120mm or 155mm) taken from the arsenals of the former regime and detonated by blasting caps wired to a small battery. The current is switched on either by a command wire or a simple device such as the remote control used for children's toys or to open garage doors.
Such bombs were used by guerrillas during the Irish war of independence in 1919-21 against British patrols and convoys. They were commonly used in the Second World War, when "shaped charges", similar in purpose to the EFPs of which the US is now complaining, were employed by all armies. The very name - explosive formed penetrators - may have been chosen to imply that a menacing new weapon has been developed.
At the end of last year the Baker-Hamilton report, written by a bipartisan commission of Republicans and Democrats, suggested opening talks with Iran and Syria to resolve the Iraq crisis. Instead, President Bush has taken a precisely opposite line, blaming Iran and Syria for US losses in Iraq.
In the past month Washington has arrested five Iranian officials in a long-established office in Arbil, the Kurdish capital. An Iranian diplomat was kidnapped in Baghdad, allegedly by members of an Iraqi military unit under US influence. President George Bush had earlier said that Iranians deemed to be targeting US forces could be killed, which seemed to be opening the door to assassinations.
The statements from Washington give the impression that the US has been at war with Shia militias for the past three-and-a-half years while almost all the fighting has been with the Sunni insurgents. These are often led by highly trained former officers and men from Saddam Hussein's elite military and intelligence units. During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, the Iraqi leader, backed by the US and the Soviet Union, was able to obtain training in advanced weapons for his forces.
The US stance on the military capabilities of Iraqis today is the exact opposite of its position in four years ago. Then President Bush and Tony Blair claimed that Iraqis were technically advanced enough to produce long-range missiles and to be close to producing a nuclear device. Washington is now saying that Iraqis are too backward to produce an effective roadside bomb and must seek Iranian help.
The White House may have decided that, in the run up to the 2008 presidential election, it would be much to its political advantage in the US to divert attention from its failure in Iraq by blaming Iran for being the hidden hand supporting its opponents.
It is likely that Shia militias have received weapons and money from Iran and possible that the Sunni insurgents have received some aid. But most Iraqi men possess weapons. Many millions of them received military training under Saddam Hussein. His well-supplied arsenals were all looted after his fall. No specialist on Iraq believes that Iran has ever been a serious promoter of the Sunni insurgency.
The evidence against Iran is even more insubstantial than the faked or mistaken evidence for Iraqi WMDs disseminated by the US and Britain in 2002 and 2003. The allegations appear to be full of exaggerations. Few Abrams tanks have been destroyed. It implies the Shias have been at war with the US while in fact they are controlled by parties which make up the Iraqi government.