By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 19 -- A senior U.S. general said Sunday that about 50 members of an elite Iranian military unit are training Shiite militias south of Baghdad, the first time the U.S. military has alleged that Iranians are aiding insurgents from inside Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands U.S. operations south of Baghdad, said the men were sent by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps -- a military branch that the U.S. government has decided to label a "specially designated global terrorist" -- to train Shiite insurgents in firing mortars and rockets.
"They are facilitating training of Shiite extremists," Lynch told reporters in Baghdad. "We know they're here and we target them as well."
Iran's government has consistently denied any connection between the Revolutionary Guard Corps and insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, and some military intelligence analysts have concluded there is no concrete evidence of such a link. But U.S. military leaders in Iraq have repeatedly maintained that Iran is providing money, weapons and training to so-called special cell militia groups, generally citing information gathered from interrogations.
Lynch said that no Iranians have been captured in his area of command and that U.S. troops have never found any illegal weapons in two months of patrolling 125 miles of the Iran-Iraq border.
But he said that the number of Iranian-made explosively formed penetrators -- sophisticated roadside bombs built to puncture the armor on Humvees -- has increased dramatically in recent months, while the accuracy of Shiite extremists' bombs and mortars has improved significantly.
"The enemy is more aggressive than it used to be and, candidly, in many cases he is more lethal," Lynch said.
Lynch also said Sunni insurgents are using Iranian weapons in southern Iraq, though he said he did not know how the weapons were obtained. More than 90 percent of Iran's population is Shiite, making it unlikely that the Tehran leadership would support Sunni fighters. One possibility, Lynch said, is that Shiites are selling the Iranian weapons on the black market in Iraq.
"I don't know how, but I know for a fact that Iranian munitions are making their way into the hands of Sunni insurgents," Lynch said.
Meanwhile, 12 people were killed by a barrage of mortar rounds in east Baghdad, police said. Several homes were destroyed, and at least 32 people were injured in the Shiite neighborhood of Obeidi.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived in Baghdad on Sunday night at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani. Kouchner said he did not come to Iraq with a particular diplomatic agenda but rather to listen to people working to solve the country's problems.
"This is an Iraqi problem and it must be solved by the Iraqis," Kouchner said.
The visit appears to be part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's effort to improve ties with the United States. France led opposition to the invasion in 2003, but Sarkozy, who took office in May, has strived to repair relations.
Kouchner, who frequently dealt with Iraqis as a co-founder of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, is the first French cabinet minister to visit since the U.S.-led invasion.
Correspondent Molly Moore in Paris contributed to this report.