Monday 19 February 2007 Issue
A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and NEWSWEEK has learned that a third carrier will likely follow.
Jalal Sharafi was carrying a video game, a gift for his daughter, when he found himself surrounded. On that chilly Sunday morning, the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad had driven himself to the commercial district of Arasat Hindi to checkout the site for a new Iranian bank. He had ducked into a nearby electronics store with his bodyguards, and as they emerged four armored cars roared up and disgorged at least 20 gunmen wearing bulletproof vests and Iraqi National Guard uniforms. They flashed official IDs, and manhandled Sharafi into one car. Iraqi police gave chase, guns blazing. They shot up one of the other vehicles, capturing four assailants who by late last week had yet to be publicly identified. Sharafi and the others disappeared.
At the embassy, the diplomat's colleagues were furious. "This was a group directly under American supervision," said one distraught Iranian official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. Abdul Karim Inizi, a former Iraqi Security minister close to the Iranians, pointed the finger at an Iraqi black-ops unit based out at the Baghdad airport, who answer to American Special Forces officers. "It's plausible," says a senior Coalition adviser who is also not authorized to speak on the record. The unit does exist - and does specialize in snatch operations.
The Iranians have reason to feel paranoid. In recent weeks senior American officers have condemned Tehran for providing training and deadly explosives to insurgents. In a predawn raid on Dec. 21, U.S. troops barged into the compound of the most powerful political party in the country, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and grabbed two men they claimed were officers in Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Three weeks later U.S. troops stormed an Iranian diplomatic office in Irbil, arresting five more Iranians. The Americans have hinted that as part of an escalating tit-for-tat, Iranians may have had a hand in a spectacular raid in Karbala on Jan. 20, in which four American soldiers were kidnapped and later found shot, execution style, in the head. U.S. forces promised to defend themselves.
Some view the spiraling attacks as a strand in a worrisome pattern. At least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers secretly want an excuse to attack Iran. "They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for," says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs. U.S. officials insist they have no intention of provoking or otherwise starting a war with Iran, and they were also quick to deny any link to Sharafi's kidnapping. But the fact remains that the longstanding war of words between Washington and Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous. A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and NEWSWEEK has learned that a third carrier will likely follow. Iran shot off a few missiles in those same tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. With Americans and Iranians jousting on the chaotic battleground of Iraq, the chances of a small incident's spiraling into a crisis are higher than they've been in years.