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US eases tone on Iran's role in Iraq

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In an atmosphere of sharp skepticism about intelligence and heightened sensitivity to saber rattling since the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration is signaling a more cautious tone toward Iran.

Less than a month ago, President Bush used a speech on a way forward in Iraq to present fresh accusations against Iran and roll out a more aggressive approach to the regime in Tehran. Now, the Iran debate is sounding markedly different.

Senior officials from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon are playing down the evidence the US possesses of "nefarious" Iranian involvement in Iraq's spiraling violence – in particular against US forces there. They're also insisting the US wants to work out problems with Tehran diplomatically.

A repeated delay in a promised presentation of evidence against Iran reflects the administration's desire to get things right, and to neither overplay nor underestimate involvement, officials say.

Explaining why the rollout of facts on Iranian involvement has been delayed, Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, told reporters Friday that "the truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated, and we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts."

But the moderated tone also suggests an administration still smarting over memories of the earlier botched campaign to justify taking on Saddam Hussein, some experts say. And with some military officials cautioning against the risks of an "accidental escalation" resulting from a mishandling of the new aggressiveness toward Iran, the administration may have decided to pull back, they say.

Yet others with experience in similar situations involving both policy and intelligence motivations believe some evidence linking Iran to recent acts of violence is in US hands – but that intelligence officials have resisted its release for fear of compromising a fruitful information channel.

"What we've seen so far suggests information from somewhere in the Iranian government, perhaps from the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, but the intelligence people don't want to let it out for fear of tipping off the Iranians or losing a source," says Wayne White, a former Middle East analyst with the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research.

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