Story Highlights• Pace emphasizes "assessment," as opposed to "fact"
• Gates: What's known is Quds force is involved
• Clarification came after military claims that Iran's "highest levels" are involved
• Unnamed U.S. military officials Sunday traced weapons in Iraq to Iran
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It is not known whether senior Iranian political leaders are aware of the military Quds force's involvement in providing armor-piercing explosives to militants in Iraq, two top U.S. defense officials have said.
Comments by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came a day after U.S. President George W. Bush said he too did not know the extent, if any, of the Iranian government's involvement.
"We know that the Quds force is involved," Gates said.
"We know the Quds force is a paramilitary arm of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps). So we assume that the leadership of the IRGC knows about this. Whether or not more senior political leaders in Iran know about it, we don't know -- and frankly, for me, either way it's a worry. Either they do know and have approved it, or they don't know, and the IRGC may be acting on their own in Iraq."
On Sunday, three unnamed U.S. military officials -- a senior defense official, a senior defense analyst and an explosives expert -- told journalists that the Quds force was providing armor-piercing weapons to Shiite groups in Iraq.
The allegation is a serious one, because the Quds force answers directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and is charged with defending the Islamic regime and its ideology.
The U.S. assessment was that orders for the Quds force's operations were "coming from the highest levels of government," the officials added.
But Pace on Thursday acknowledged that "we do not have proof that the senior leadership in Iran is directing these activities in Iraq."
The key word, he said, is "assessment ... Either those who were speaking (Sunday) didn't make a clear enough break between fact and assessment, or those who were listening didn't hear the break between fact and assessment."
The U.S. military officials bolstered their claim on Sunday by saying that a senior operations officer for the Quds force was among several Iranian officers arrested in Irbil, an Iraqi Kurdish city, in recent weeks.
Other Iranian officers have provided information that Iran is also arming a prominent Iraqi political organization, according to the U.S. military. The officers were detained during a December raid on the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the military said.
The powerful Shiite group has close ties to Iran.
In addition to the Quds officer's arrest, the armor-piercing weapons -- dubbed EFP's for explosively formed penetrators -- are manufactured in such a way that they can be traced to Iran, the military officials said Sunday. In addition, 81mm mortar shells used in Iraq also can be sourced to Iran.
The weekend press conference generated controversy in the United States.
Bloggers, journalists and citizens questioned the veracity of the claim and whether the military was trying to drum up public sentiment for a confrontation with Iran.
An official at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad told CNN Monday the allegations were "all lies," adding, "The American administration has made many mistakes in Iraq and now they want to use Iran as a scapegoat."
"For the umpteenth time, we are not looking for an excuse to go to war with Iran," Gates said Thursday. "I think that the evidence speaks for itself, and I hope that the (American) people will see that evidence in that respect."
The U.S. military's goal, he said, is only to bring about an end to the bombs and armor-piercing weapons that are killing American troops. EFP are "a small percentage" of the explosives encountered in Iraq, he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace discussed Quds force involvement in Iraq Thursday.
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