by Bill IckesMon Feb 26, 11:33 AM ET
US troops in Iraq have found a huge cache of weapons and material to make deadly armour-piercing bombs of a type Iran has allegedly smuggled to Shiite militias, US officers said Monday.
Displaying a trove of bomb parts, shells and rockets, the commanders said it was impossible to tie the shipment directly to the Tehran government, but said many of the weapons were clearly Iranian-made.
Soldiers uncovered three arms caches with enough components to build 150 "explosively formed penetrators" on Saturday in Jadidah, a Shiite village 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Baghdad, US army Major Jeremy Siegrist said.
Earlier this month, a US military spokesman charged that EFPs were made in Iran and exported to Shiite militias in Iraq as bomb components to be assembled and used in attacks on US and Iraqi forces.
This allegation sparked controversy and was denied in Tehran, and on Monday Siegrist was cautious, saying: "I don't think there's any way this can be tied to a government."
He said the 1st Cavalry Division had captured and killed foreign fighters in Diyala province, but added: "I don't recall ever actually capturing or hearing of Iranians."
The major said, however, that the design of 19 120mm mortar rounds, 13 122mm rockets and three bags of C4 plastic explosives displayed near Baghdad's airport, along with their markings, indicated they were of Iranian origin.
The cache included two chest-type freezers and a 300-litre water tank which had been buried and covered with palm branches.
In addition, 20 US troops and 23 Iraqi policemen recovered seven rocket propelled grenade launchers, Siegrist said at Camp Victory, where soldiers laid out the haul for photographers and cameramen.
"This is a significant amount. It saved a lot of soldiers' lives," said Captain Clayton Combs, whose unit found the weapons.
"This is the first time we have found a manufacturing location."
He acknowledged however: "I wish we had detainees to go with this but we don't."
The find came after a local resident called a tip line.
"The final tip helped us get to the actual cache but we were already zeroing in on the area," Siegrist said.
Among the parts were bags of bicycle ball bearings, often used by suicide bombers to ensure maximum casualties, with labels in English which read: "Feel the performance, feel the power, feel the steel balls."
Combs said the armour-piercing bomb components were believed to be expensive and their seizure was therefore a major blow to the armed group which hid them.
"I think we made a dent not only in resources but also in finances. We took both those away when we captured this cache," he said.
"There is a theory that says EFPs are very expensive and that's why you don't see lot of them, because of the money limitation."
On February 13, US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said EFPs had so far been successfully manufactured only in Iran and that since May 2004 at least 170 American soldiers had been killed by them.
The device is designed to propel a white-hot slug of molten copper when a vehicle passes, piercing even the heavy armour of US battle tanks and causing carnage inside.
US officials have cited its increasing use on the Iraqi battlefield as evidence of Iranian interference.
Iran denies the charge, and opponents of President George W. Bush have accused the White House of seeking an excuse to launch air strikes against Iraq's neighbour, amid controversy over its nuclear programme.
Earlier this month, Iran's role in Iraq came under the spotlight once more, when US commanders and senior Iraqi officials said Shiite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr had decamped across the border.
Sadr's supporters deny this but he has not been seen publicly for many weeks.