WASHINGTON (AFP) â€” US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Iran Tuesday of sending Revolutionary Guard forces into Iraq to make trouble, and warned Tehran it was “an error in judgement.””They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq, and we know it, and it is something that they will look back on as having been an error in judgement,” he told reporters here.
Pressed to elaborate, Rumsfeld said the Iranians were putting “Quds force-type people,” or Revolutionary Guard forces, into Iraq.
“I don’t think we could consider them religious pilgrims,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld’s charges come amid heightened sectarian tension inside Iraq that have raised fears of civil war in the wake of the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque February 22.
At the same time, Washington is engaged in a sharpening diplomatic confrontation with Iran over suspicions it is developing nuclear weapons.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, said in a newspaper interview Tuesday that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq had opened a “Pandora’s box” of ethnic and sectarian tensions that could engulf the region.
He told the Los Angeles Times the United States had little choice but to maintain a strong presence in Iraq, or risk a regional conflict with Arabs siding with Iraqi Sunni muslims and Iran backing Iraq’s Shiite muslims.
Many Iraqi Shiite leaders, now locked in struggle with Sunnis and Kurds over the formation of a new government, have ties with Iran’s ruling Shiite clergy that were forged in exile.
But Rumsfeld said he believed the Shia see themselves as Iraqis first.
“I think they are not going to be enamored of having help from across their border,” he said.
“So it is clearly a problem. Is it a threat to their security? Is it possible some more Iraqis will be killed? Sure,” he said.
General Peter Pace, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said some improvised explosive devices and other weapons used in Iraq have been traced back to Iran.
“The most recent reports have to do with individuals crossing the border into Iraq,” he told reporters.
Pace said he did not know whether the infiltrators had the backing of the Tehran government, nor could he say whether the flow of infiltrations is on the rise.
But Rumsfeld said that “of course” the Iranian government was behind them.
“The Iranian Revolutionary Guard doesn’t go milling around willy-nilly, one would think,” he said.
Rumsfeld spoke at a Pentagon press conference in which he played down the risk of a full-blown civil war while accusing the media of exaggerating the violence that followed the February 22 mosque attack.
“The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq,” he said.
When pressed on whether he believed the media had fallen for a disinformation campaign, Rumsfeld said, “Oh, I can’t go into people’s minds. All I’m doing is reporting on what we’ve seen.”
Khalilzad told the Los Angeles Times that Iraq had pulled back from civil war, but “the potential is there.”
He said “if another incident [occurs], Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time, in my judgement.”
Rumsfeld said the United States will wait and see before deciding on any further reductions in US forces in Iraq, which now number 132,000.
“We’ll let this settle down and we see where we are,” Rumsfeld said.
General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, was expected to make recommendations on force levels this month. He was supposed to meet with President George W. Bush later this week, but has remained in Baghdad.
“I think that these things go in bursts, and the burst has passed. And it’s been handled pretty well,” Rumsfeld said. “And there will be another burst at some point down the road, simply because that’s the nature of that part of the world and the situation.”