The Elusive Quds Force

The Iranian Special Operations unit called the Quds Force has for years been accused, with or without evidence, of assassinations and terrorist attacks as far away as Argentina. But its specialty is different: striking fear in the hearts of generals. Over the past 25 years, the Quds Force has proved ferociously effective at organizing, training and equipping guerrillas to confront the world's most vaunted armies. Quds played a vital role in creating Hizbullah to fight the Israelis in Lebanon. It supported the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud against the Russians and his Taliban rivals in Afghanistan. Quds helped the Bosnians hold back the Serbian war machine. And now--it's in Iraq.

"What matters is that they're there," President George W. Bush said last week. Precisely why, at whose direction or invitation, and with what long-term goals: all that remains in doubt. Bush, even as he said the group had "harmed our troops," suggested how much remains unknown: "I do not know whether or not the Quds Force was ordered from the top echelons of [the Iranian] government. But my point is: what's worse--them ordering it and it happening, or them not ordering it and it happening?"

Actually, what's worse is that the unit appears to be as close to America's Shiite and Kurdish allies as to splinter groups accused of killing perhaps 170 of the more than 3,000 American soldiers who've died in Iraq. The relationship between the Quds Force and figures like Iraqi President Jalal Talabani or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (both of whom have been received in the White House recently) goes back two decades to the days when only Tehran was aiding Saddam Hussein's enemies. "Do the Americans think they would stop working with us because Americans told them so?" says an Iranian intelligence official who is not authorized to speak on the record. Quds operatives captured recently were working directly under the protection, respectively, of Talabani and Hakim.

Because of the bad intelligence that the Bush administration used to pave the way to war with Iraq in 2003, skeptics worry it may be using similar tactics to provoke a fight with Iran. But when it comes to the Quds Force, the American military's concerns are much more down to earth. The weapons known as "explosively formed penetrators" or EFPs, which Quds allegedly helped design and supply to some Shiite factions in Iraq, send a molten slug at phenomenal speed through heavy armor. Each one costs perhaps $50, but is capable of crippling an Abrams tank that costs more than $4 million, and they are increasingly common.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of the year, U.S. helicopters have been shot out of the sky with unprecedented frequency. Although none of the five confirmed shootdowns have been linked to the Quds Force, or to Iran, U.S. commanders are worried about their troops' ability to move on the ground and in the air. So they're looking for any way to relieve the pressure--to stop the flow of Iranian arms--three Army sources told NEWSWEEK on condition of anonymity. Publicizing the threat and pushing back against Iran is one idea. But taking aim at this new enemy will be a challenge, given the risk of hitting a friend.