By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 20 -- The U.S. ambassador to Iraq accused Iran on Monday of providing weapons, training and support to Iraqi militia and insurgent groups responsible for the country's continuing violence and instability.
At a news conference, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad criticized what he called Iran's "negative role" in Iraqi affairs, saying the country's diplomatic relationship with its neighbor was tainted by a policy "to work with militias, to work with extremist groups, to provide training and weapons." He added that there was evidence the Iranians provided "indirect help" to Sunni Arab insurgents who attack U.S. and Iraqi government troops.
The Iranian aid was part of a "comprehensive strategy" by a "player seeking regional preeminence," he said.
It was not the first time the United States and its allies have made such accusations. In October, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government was investigating evidence that Iran had sold sophisticated bombs to insurgents in Iraq.
But Khalilzad's remarks were unusually blunt. "I have said to Iraqis that we do not seek to impose our differences with Iran on them," Khalilzad said. "But we do not want Iranian interference in Iraq."
Khalilzad rejected recent Iranian calls for the withdrawal of British troops from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, saying that the demands were "uncalled for" and that the issue was "none of their business." The Iranians, he said, were attempting to divert attention from the dispute over their nuclear ambitions.
Iran called for the withdrawal soon after the release of a tape that appears to show British troops beating teenage boys who were involved in a protest in Basra, which lies near the Iranian border in a predominantly Shiite Muslim area.
"The coalition forces are here under a U.N. mandate, at the request of the Iraqi government," Khalilzad said. "Basra is Iraqi territory, the last time I checked the map."
Iraq's relationship to Iran is a complicated one. The two countries fought a brutal, inconclusive war in the 1980s. But Iraq's population is predominantly Shiite and many Shiite politicians have close ties to Iran, having lived there in exile during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. This has led many Iraqis to fear that their country will become a pawn of their eastern neighbor.
Some Shiite parties maintain militias in order to back their decisions with force. It has long been a goal of U.S. policy to disband these groups, and critics say the militias, and militia fighters who have joined the country's security forces, are responsible for a campaign of killing and intimidation aimed at Sunni Arabs.
At the news conference, Khalilzad reiterated a call for Iraqis to form a government representing all of the country's ethnic and sectarian groups and to staff their security ministries with competent, nonsectarian leaders. He implied that the United States could cut off aid to Iraq if they do otherwise.
"We're not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian," Khalilzad said.
At a news conference in Najaf on Monday, Ibrahim al-Jafari, the Iraqi prime minister, said foreign governments were not expected to interfere in the process of forming a government. "The next government will be formed by Iraqi hands and it will take into account the election results," he said. "And will seek to apply standards of honesty, competence and efficiency so that the performance of the government shall be strong."
Meanwhile, at least 25 Iraqis were killed in bombings Monday morning, police said, and a roadside bomb killed a coalition soldier patrolling southeast of Karbala, U.S. military authorities said in a statement.
The bulk of the attacks were in Baghdad. In the worst incident, a man detonated an explosive vest inside a bus in northern Baghdad, killing at least 14 people and wounding more than five, said Maj. Mukhallad Ani, an Interior Ministry spokesman. Ani said the bomber targeted a bus that was carrying Shiites near the Hawija bus station in the Shiite Kadhimiya neighborhood.
In Mosul, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt inside a restaurant, killing three and wounding six, all police officers, according to hospital and police officials.
The attack took place in the Abu Ali restaurant in central Mosul, said Gen. Abdul Hamid Jubouri, a spokesman for the Nineveh province police. The restaurant is close to the police headquarters and is frequented by officers, witnesses said.
Last week, insurgents destroyed a communications center in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's restive Anbar province. The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility this week. A U.S. military spokesman confirmed Monday that a communications building had been attacked but did not provide details.
Mahmood Fahdawi, the city's communications manager, said the building housed a tip line that residents could use to inform authorities of insurgent activity. But he said it also controlled cell phone service for a large part of the province.
Residents said the city is now largely disconnected from the rest of the world. Insurgents have targeted people using satellite phones, now the only means to contact security forces in the city, residents said.
Ismael Bayati, a physician, said even the city's hospital was cut off.
Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.