By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 14 -- Through proxies, Iran is giving weapons, bomb technology and training to Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, U.S. military officials said Monday.
"We do know that Shia extremist groups have received training through some sort of third element associated with Iran," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman. "We do know that weapons have been provided."
The U.S. assertions echo previous warnings about Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Washington Post in March that Iranian agents in Iraq train and arm Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army, which is linked to the powerful, anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is presence of people associated with Revolutionary Guard and with MOIS," Khalilzad said, referring to Iran's main military force and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
The assertions have resurfaced as tensions grow on two fronts -- between the United States and Iran over Iran's support of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and between the United States and Sadr's Mahdi Army, which is emerging as the major Shiite threat to U.S. efforts to stabilize the capital.
Iran's Shiite theocratic government, which has long-standing ties to Iraq's Shiite political and religious leaders, has repeatedly denied that it foments instability in Iraq and instead has blamed the United States.
On Monday, Caldwell appeared to tone down the U.S. position on Iran as a force of unrest in Iraq. He said Shiite extremists have received technology for roadside bombs from Iranian proxy groups. He also said the United States has evidence that Iranian-made weapons and munitions produced after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in April 2003 have been found in Iraq.
But Caldwell stopped short of alleging that the Iranian government was directly involved or that Iranian agents were in Iraq.
"There's nothing that we definitively have found to say that there are any Iranians operating within the country of Iraq, but rather some clear surrogate elements have been doing this," he said. "We do believe that some Shiite elements have been in Iran, receiving training. But the degree to which this is known and endorsed by the government of Iran is uncertain."
Nor would Caldwell identify the Shiite groups the United States believes Iran is supplying with weapons and training. When asked whether Hezbollah was "the third element" training Iraq's Shiite militias, Caldwell said, "We've made no direct connection with anything involving them at this point."
Officials from two of the most influential Shiite groups denied receiving any weapons or training from Iran or its surrogates.
"Usually such statements of the United States of America come after they have proven their incapability to control the security situation in Iraq," said Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, a Sadr spokesman. "This is unrealistic. The Iraqis are not followers of Iran."
Saad Jawad Qindeel, a political official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party, denied that its armed wing had received weapons from Iran.
"All the Badr Brigade has is its personal weapons, which are available in Iraq," Qindeel said. "Why should they go to Iran? There's no evidence."
Also Monday, U.S. military officials unveiled new uniforms for the Iraqi national police that they said would be difficult for insurgents, death squads and criminals to counterfeit and use to impersonate officers. The bluish-gray uniforms, to be issued in October, have a stamp-size Iraqi flag printed into the cloth. The current uniforms are easy to duplicate and can readily be purchased in markets across Baghdad.
Meanwhile, violence continued across Iraq. Five people were killed and seven were wounded when a car bomb exploded Monday night on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, according to Kasim Yahyehya, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
U.S. military officials said a gas explosion caused the deaths of 62 people in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad on Sunday. But senior Iraqi officials said a barrage of rockets and bombs caused the destruction, echoing what police and some witnesses said. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement blaming Sunni insurgents.