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Alleged Iranian conspirator in assassination plot tied to 2007 attack on U.S. troops

The Envoy

As the Obama administration pressed its case this week that elements of Iran's elite Qods Force brigade plotted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, more information has emerged about one of the alleged conspirator's ties to a brutal attack that killed five American troops in Karbala, Iraq in 2007.

President Obama and senior officials laid out their case in a series of meetings with foreign leaders and diplomats, including a highly unusual meeting between the American and Iranian UN envoys on Wednesday.

"We've laid the facts before them," Obama said at a press conference Wednesday with visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Wednesday, the Associated Press reported, referring to foreign leaders and diplomats. When they have had a chance to more closely examine the U.S. evidence, he said, "there will not be a dispute" over the American claims.

"We believe that, even if at the highest levels there was not detailed operational knowledge, there has to be accountability with respect to anybody in the Iranian government engaging in this kind of activity," he added.

Obama's comments came a day after Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN, reportedly held an unusual meeting with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khazaee.

"U.S. officials...confirmed the Obama administration has had direct contact with Iran over the allegations," CBS News reported Thursday. Rice "met with Iranian officials at Iran's mission to the U.N. on Wednesday—a highly unusual contact for two countries that do not have diplomatic relations."

Khazaee denied the American charges as "politically motivated" Tuesday in an angry letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the case directly to the Swiss ambassador to Iran, who flew to Washington especially for the briefing Thursday. (The Swiss act as the United States' diplomatic protector in Iran, which broke off relations with the United States after the 1979 Islamic revolution and seizure of U.S. embassy hostages that year.) Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns similarly presented the case to over 100 foreign diplomats in a meeting Wednesday, pressing for more sanctions and pressure on Iran, diplomats who attended the briefing said.

As analysts have sifted through the information in the complaint unsealed by the Justice Department earlier this week, more information has emerged about an Iranian Qods force commander identified as a key figure in the alleged assassination plot.

Abdul Reza Shahlai is described in the U.S. government documents released this week as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force commander, as well as the cousin of Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian-American former used car salesman who allegedly confessed to U.S. authorities last month to plotting the assassination of the Saudi envoy to Washington.

But it turns out that the United States is already quite familiar with Arbabsiar's cousin Shahlai.

In 2008, the Treasury Department previously designated him as a Qods Force deputy commander who allegedly planned a highly sophisticated ambush by an Iraqi Shiite militant group that killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala, Iraq in 2007. Among the most stunning features of that Jan. 2007 attack was that the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militants who carried it out were wearing U.S. military uniforms.

In its 2008 designation, Treasury described Shahlai as a IRGC-QF deputy commander "who planned 'Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) Special Groups attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq,'" counterterrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn wrote at Long War Journal. "One of the attacks he 'planned' was the 2007 raid in Karbala, a daring and sophisticated operation in which Iranian-trained terrorists posed as American soldiers during an assault on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center."

This week, in its new designation, the Treasury Department charged that Shahlai  "coordinated the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir ... and to carry out follow-on attacks against other countries' interests inside the United States and in another country."

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