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Conflicting word on U.S. drones over Iran

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. sources have given conflicting signals about the veracity of a Washington Post report that said America has been using unmanned flights for the past year to gather intelligence on Iran's nuclear capability.

Three senior U.S. military officials disputed the article Sunday, but two well-placed U.S. government sources confirmed it, saying that the overflights have indeed been taking place.

The newspaper -- citing three U.S. officials -- reported that Washington has been using drones to look for evidence of nuclear weapons programs and to "detect weaknesses in air defenses."

Neither the CIA nor the Pentagon would comment Sunday on the apparent discrepancy.

The Bush administration has been working to build international pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program, arguing that the country is operating a clandestine weapons program.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is designed for civilian energy production only.

Because U.S. intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong, some critics of the Bush administration have questioned whether U.S. intelligence on Iran can be trusted.

Britain, France and Germany have been holding talks with Tehran in an attempt to have Iran's uranium-enrichment program permanently frozen. The United States has said it would work with European countries in their efforts.

Meanwhile, Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN's "Late Edition" Sunday that the United States is not flying drones over Iran.

But the Kansas Republican did say that unmanned aerial vehicles -- or UAVs -- have the capability to collect such intelligence.

"I think we ought to be using all of our capabilities in terms of collecting the intelligence we need," said Roberts, who recently commissioned his staff to conduct a review of U.S. intelligence on Iran, in order to avoid the kind of faulty assessments that preceded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"It was a world community intelligence failure; we can't let that happen again," Roberts said.

Meanwhile, another U.S. senator said Iran was a greater problem than Iraq was and America needed to have "all eyes on the ground that we can possibly get."

"They are a dangerous country," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat.

"They're much more sophisticated than Iraq."

Several U.S. military officials said they have no information on any U.S. operations over Iran.

A senior military official with knowledge of the region told CNN last week that there were no aircraft, including UAVs, flying over Iranian airspace.

He said no U.S. military aircraft were violating Iranian airspace and that the United States was keeping its assets 12 miles (19 kilometers) off Iranian shores.

In January, the Pentagon criticized an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that says the United States has been carrying out reconnaissance missions in Iran for possible airstrikes as soon as this summer. (Full story)

In December, the Iranian newspaper "Etemaad" reported Iranian citizens' apparent sightings of unidentified flying objects.

People said they saw illuminated objects flying over eastern and western parts of Iran, including the cities of Bushehr and Esfahan.

The objects were flying at an altitude of about 30,000 feet, the report said.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Barbara Starr in Washington, and journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr in Tehran, contributed to this report.

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