| GEO World|
| US expands secret military acts in Mideast: report|
| Updated at: 0705 PST, Tuesday, May 25, 2010|
WASHINGTON: The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents, a top US daily reported in its May 24 edition.
The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.
While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could "penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy" Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to "prepare the environment" for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. The order, however, does not appear to authorize offensive strikes in any specific countries.
In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.
General Petraeus's order is meant for use of small teams of American troops to fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond, especially emerging groups plotting attacks against the United States.
But some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks. The authorized activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria. Many in the military are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees.
The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country's nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive. The Obama administration insists that for the moment, it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike.