By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 2 -- An American general said on Monday that Iraqi Shiite militiamen are being trained by Iranian security forces in cooperation with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, offering the most specific accusations to date of Iranian involvement in specific attacks against U.S. forces.
Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman, asserted that Iran's elite al-Quds Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guard, was providing armor-piercing weapons to extremist groups in Iraq, funneling them up to $3 million a month and training Iraqi militiamen at three camps near Tehran.
"The Iranian Quds Force is using Lebanese Hezbollah essentially as a proxy, as a surrogate in Iraq," Bergner said. "Our intelligence reveals that senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity."
Officials at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad could not be reached for comment on Monday, but in response to previous assertions of this kind they have denied Iran is in any way responsible for violence in Iraq. Similar denials have been issued by Hezbollah.
The accusations against Iran occurred on a day when Iraqi health officials said U.S. airstrikes had caused civilian casualties in the southern city of Diwaniyah.
Early Monday, about 25 mortar shells struck inside the perimeter of Camp Echo, a base for Polish troops in Diwaniyah, injuring three coalition soldiers, the U.S. military said. Two U.S. F-16 fighter jets then bombed the suspected launch sites of the mortar and rocket attack.
The airstrikes killed at least 10 people and wounded 35, according to Hussein al-Jarrah, director of Diwaniyah General Hospital. In a statement about the incident, the U.S. military made no mention of civilian casualties, but said the bombing took place along a street "where insurgents persistently use urban areas from which to attack, in order to use civilians as human shields."
Angered by the violence, residents staged a protest near a government building and some threw rocks. Gunfire broke out, killing one of the demonstrators, police said. Two policemen were injured.
Also Monday, the U.S. military said a third American soldier had been charged in the deaths of three civilians near Iskandariyah. Sgt. Evan Vela, of Phoenix, Idaho, was charged Sunday with premeditated murder, wrongfully placing a weapon by the remains of a dead Iraqi, making a false statement and obstruction of justice.
Two other soldiers from the same unit -- Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley of Candler, N.C., and Spec. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. of Laredo, Tex. -- have also been charged in the case. The alleged crimes took place over the past three months, the U.S. military said.
On Monday, the U.S. military also announced the deaths of five American soldiers and a Marine. One soldier was killed and two others were wounded by a bomb that exploded near their vehicle in Salahuddin province on Monday. The day before, a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol was hit by a roadside bomb and gunfire in western Baghdad, killing one soldier and injuring two Iraqi policemen. Another soldier was killed by gunmen in southern Baghdad. Two other soldiers and the Marine died in Anbar province in western Iraq.
In what U.S. military officials called a "deliberate ambush," insurgents early Monday opened fire with heavy machine guns on two U.S. Kiowa light attack helicopters south of Baghdad, downing one of the aircraft. The two pilots crash-landed the damaged copter, suffering only minor injuries, and were rescued by an Apache combat helicopter called to the scene.
Bergner's briefing for reporters in Baghdad emphasized a Jan. 20 attack on a provincial government complex in the southern city of Karbala, during which gunmen wearing U.S. military-style uniforms and driving sport-utility vehicles entered the compound, killed an American serviceman and abducted four others, later killing them.
In March, a U.S. raid in Basra captured Qais Khazali, who admitted to authorizing the Karbala attack, Bergner said. Bergner asserted that Khazali, a former spokesman for Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, worked closely with the Iranian Quds Force -- in particular a man known as Haji Yusif, deputy commander for the al-Quds Force Department of External Special Operations -- to develop a network of Shiite fighters in Iraq.
During the March raid, U.S. forces also captured Ali Musa Daqduq, who initially pretended that he was deaf and mute but later admitted to U.S. forces that he had been working with Hezbollah since 1983, Bergner said. Daqduq allegedly commanded a Hezbollah special operations group, provided security for the movement's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and in May 2006 went to Iran to work with the Quds Force to train Iraqi Shiite militiamen organized into units that Bergner referred to as "special groups."
"Both Ali Musa Daqduq and Qais Khazali state that senior leadership within the Quds Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack that killed five coalition soldiers," Bergner said.
During his four trips into Iraq before his capture, Daqduq "monitored and reported on the training and arming of special groups in mortars and rockets, manufacturing and employment of improvised explosive devices and kidnapping operations," Bergner said. "Most significantly, he was tasked to organize the special groups in ways that mirrored how Hezbollah was organized in Lebanon."
A videotape of Daqduq detailing the training program he ran in Iran and his activities in Iraq is circulating among U.S. officials in Washington, a senior U.S. official said Monday.
Hezbollah spokesmen in Lebanon said they were checking whether Daqduq was a member of the movement. The spokesmen would not make any other comment and declined to be identified further.
A spokesman for Sadr described the accusations against Daqduq and Khazali as "the lies of the occupation forces."
"The Mahdi Army is self-financed from inside the country, and has no political, financial or military relations with Iran," said Ahmed al-Shaibani. "The reason for arresting Khazali is because he was the second spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr after me."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a brief telephone interview that he had not seen the details of the American presentation and could not respond to the specific allegations. But he agreed that senior Iraqi officials have repeatedly "raised these concerns" about Iranian involvement in Iraq at the "highest levels" of the Iranian government.
Bergner, referring to recent talks between Iranian and U.S. officials, said, "There does not seem to be any follow-through on the commitments that Iran has made to work with Iraq in addressing the destabilizing security issues here in Iraq."
Bergner said that the Quds Force runs three camps "not too far from Tehran" where groups of 20 to 60 Iraqis are trained in the use of roadside bombs, rockets, sniping and other violent tactics, with the intent that they will return to Iraq to fight. These militiamen include fighters from the Mahdi Army, the militia run by Sadr, Bergner said. But he sought to distance Sadr -- who has increasingly advocated against violence that could injure Iraqis -- from these fighters.
"We believe that these are operating outside his control and that he shares the concern and the seriousness that they represent and is trying to find ways to bring an end to it," Bergner said.
Since Feb. 9, the U.S. military has captured or killed 27 people it believes are members of the so-called special groups, Bergner said.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Alia Ibrahim in Beirut, correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Cairo and staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.