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Pentagon Thinking on Iran Unchanged

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ROBERT BURNS | December 7, 2007 01:14 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — A new intelligence estimate downplaying Iran's nuclear ambitions has not changed the way the Defense Department views the country that has been long criticized by the Bush administration for fostering instability in Iraq, senior Pentagon officials said Friday.

"There has been no course correction _ slowdown, speedup _ given to us inside the Joint Staff" for military crisis planning on Iran, based on the intelligence report released Monday, said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sattler said Defense Secretary Robert Gates planned to address the Iran issue in a speech at an international security conference in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain on Saturday.

Asked whether the Pentagon considers Iran less of a threat, in light of the intelligence report which said that Iran once had a covert nuclear weapons program but halted it in 2003, Sattler said that matter was under discussion within the U.S. government, but he would not comment further.

Sattler, along with Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, the Joint Staff's operations chief, said it remains unclear whether Iran has fully honored a pledge to end the weapons flow into neighboring Iraq. They said Iraqi forces continue to uncover arms, but it's not clear if they were sent before or after Iran promised to end the shipments.

"The jury's still out," Sattler said.

Ham also said it's possible the Army could move back to 12-month deployments as soon as late summer 2008 if the number of U.S. forces in Iraq is reduced as planned and security continues to improve. Soldiers now serve for as long as 15 months _ lengthy tours that are a big burden on soldiers and their families.

It is too early to tell if al-Qaida in Iraq is making a "last stand" in the northern part of the country, the generals said. But they said the terrorist group has fewer places to operate at will, a change due in large part to U.S. military successes in western and central Iraq as well as more capable Iraqi forces.

"Very clearly there are places in Iraq ... which are increasingly inhospitable to al-Qaida in Iraq, and so it's clear to us that they are seeking other opportunities," especially along the Tigris River in northern Iraq, around the city of Mosul, Ham said.

Ham, a former commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said al-Qaida fighters are finding that Iraqi army and police forces in the Mosul area are more capable than they had seen previously.