A ROYAL NAVY helicopter that crashed in flames in Basra last year, killing all five on board, was shot down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile supplied to Iraqi militants by Iran, according to US officials.
America knew that the Mahdi Army, the radical Shiâ€™ite militia, had obtained the shoulder-launched missile from the Iranians but failed to tell the British because of a row between the State Department and the CIA over the reliability of the source, US intelligence sources said.
The Lynx helicopter, from 847 Naval Air Squadron, based at Yeovilton, Somerset, was carrying a three-man crew plus Wing Commander John Coxen, the most senior officer to die in Iraq, and Flight Lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, the first British servicewoman killed in action since the second world war.
Witnesses told an inquest in Oxford last week that they saw a ball of yellow flame, typical of a particular type of missile, heading for the Lynx. Private Stuart Drummond said: â€œI thought it was a missile. The helicopter exploded. It was engulfed in flames and went down.â€
The families of those killed were frequently asked to leave the inquest as secret details of the missile and the failure of the helicopterâ€™s defensive systems were discussed. The report of a board of inquiry into the incident is heavily edited and was classified Top Secret Codeword, the highest UK classification.
This was because telephone intercepts, intelligence reports and pieces of the missile recovered from the scene confirmed that it came from Iran, the American sources said.
Three days before the attack, State Department officials interviewed an Iraqi linked to the Mahdi Army who told them Iran had supplied the militia with the Russian surface-to-air missile.
It was intended specifically for the Mahdi Army to shoot down a British helicopter, codenamed Operation Hawk-Taking.
The intelligence was not passed on to the British because the CIA dismissed the Iraqi detainee as â€œa well-known fabricatorâ€, the sources alleged.
The allegations of Iranian involvement come amid increasing concern over Iranâ€™s role in disrupting coalition operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Des Browne, the defence secretary, confirmed the scale of Iranian involvement in southern Iraq earlier this month. â€œWell over 80% of the violence is targeted against the British forces, much of it quite specifically influenced by the Iranians,â€ he said.
â€œWe stand between them and their ambitions to share the spoils of what is potentially one of the richest cities in the world and to show the local population that they can force us out would be quite a coup for them. Itâ€™s in their interests to have their proxies drive us out of Iraq.â€
British and US troops fought pitched battles with the Mahdi Army near the southern town of Amara last week as they broke up a network smuggling equipment from Iran to make armour-piercing shaped-charge bombs.
While it is widely known that Iran has been attempting to influence events in southern Iraq by backing attacks on British forces, suggestions that Iran is backing the Taliban in Afghanistan have, until recently, been given less credence by UK officials.
Browne went further than any British official on Iranian support for the Taliban. He said: â€œIt is a changing pattern in that the Iranian influence is very important. We have evidence to suggest that they support the Taliban.â€
Robert Gates, his US counterpart, made similar accusations, saying the extent of arms shipment across the Iranian border into Afghanistan suggested that the Iranian government was aware they were taking place.
Gates, a former CIA director, said he had seen recent intelligence analysis â€œthat makes it pretty clear thereâ€™s a fairly substantial flow of weaponsâ€.
Coalition forces have intercepted at least two large shipments of weapons coming into Afghanistan from Iran, one close to the border with Iran and the other near Kandahar.
It was left to the State Department to make the strongest allegations, with Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state, claiming there was â€œirrefutable evidenceâ€ that the Iranian government was involved in shipping weapons to the Taliban.
British officials, who had previously hesitated to suggest that Iran supported the Taliban, said they were seeing evidence of a shift in Tehranâ€™s position.
That appeared to be confirmed by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, principal defence adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranâ€™s supreme leader. Shamkhani told the US journal Defense News that Iran had â€œblocked US movesâ€ in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Iranâ€™s â€œpartner of choiceâ€ in Afghanistan is the United Front, the Talibanâ€™s most implacable foe, Tehran is hedging its bets. It is also friendly with the government of President Hamid Karzai and invests heavily in Afghanistan, particularly in the west around Herat.
Its support for the Taliban is seen as similar to that of Paki-stanâ€™s, based on a recognition that in five or six yearsâ€™ time America and its allies will be gone and the Taliban will not only still exist but could be in control of much of Afghanistan.
Officials said that Iran was also happy to be seen to be â€œtweaking the tailâ€ of Britain and America.