Report: U.S., Sunnis Combat Iranian 'Shiite Crescent'

The United States government has shifted its Middle East policy in an increasing alliance on Sunni governments to counter the threat from Iran and a developing "Shiite crescent," journalist Seymour Hersh writes in the March 5 edition of "The New Yorker."

Hersh writes that the White House has directed a "redirection" of American policy in the region, bringing the United States "closer to an open confrontation with Iran," and taking a more direct role in a regional sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

In waging war in Iraq, the United States has strengthened the hand of Iraqi Shiites and, by extension, Iran. The United States has allied itself with the predominantly Shiite government of Iraq against what U.S. officials routinely describe as an insurgency led by radical Sunnis allied with the al Qaeda terror network.

Since Iranian revolutionaries toppled the American-backed shah in 1979, U.S. administrations have cultivated closer ties with Sunni leaders in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In a recent heightening of that alliance, Hersh writes, the Bush administration has kept clandestine operations in the region quiet, in part by using Saudi proxies and avoiding congressional notification.

The story names Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams and outgoing Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad as the "key players" in carrying out the pro-Sunni American policy in the region.

"This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran," Hersh quotes Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration NSC official, as saying. "The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the administration will have an open door to strike at them."

The Pentagon is moving ahead with an "intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran" that could be carried out within 24 hours, a project that began in 2006, according to the New Yorker piece. The project is headed by a special planning group established within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the story said.

Senior military officials said the United States has contingency plans for conflict across the globe, including in areas where no conflict is expected, so the mere existence of a contingency plan is not unusual. Yet the story suggests planning has gone beyond the usual contingency preparation.

The piece suggests that two carrier strike groups now in the Arabian Sea, the Eisenhower and the Stennis, could be supplemented early this spring by two more. Hersh cites an unnamed former senior intelligence official as saying current plans allow for an attack order this spring.

"The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told ABC News in a written response to the Hersh story. "To suggest anything to the contrary is simply wrong, misleading and mischievous. The United States has been very clear with respect to its concerns regarding specific Iranian government activities. The president and Secretary Gates have repeatedly stated publicly that this county is going to work with allies in the region and address those concerns through diplomatic efforts."

The Pentagon statement does not directly address much of Hersh's reporting.

The Bush administration has increasingly accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority Shiite Muslim nation, in an apparent effort to foster a like-minded conservative Shiite ally in the region.

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