BAGHDAD -- A U.S. military spokesman accused Iranian leaders yesterday of using guerrillas from the Lebanese group Hezbollah to train militiamen fighting in Iraq and to organize attacks, including a January ambush that killed five American soldiers.
The United States has repeatedly accused the Shiite-led regime in Tehran of aiding Shiite and even Sunni Arab forces opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, charges that Iran has denied.
Yesterday's accusations included the added twist of the alleged Hezbollah connection, which Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the military spokesman, said became clear with the arrest in March of a man identified as a Lebanese-born Hezbollah operative.
A Hezbollah spokesman in Beirut said he knew of Bergner's accusations but declined to comment.
Bergner said at a news conference that the operative, whom he identified as Ali Musa Daqduq, was carrying false identification and pretended to be a deaf mute when he was detained March 20 in the southern city of Basra. A few weeks later, Bergner said, interviews, computer records and other material confirmed that Daqduq had served Hezbollah for 24 years, including coordinating protection of Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
When captured, Daqduq was carrying documents that described ways to attack Iraqi and U.S. forces, one of which Bergner displayed yesterday. Daqduq also carried a journal that contained entries that Bergner displayed, which detailed the operative's involvement with Iraqi militants who tried to attack British, Iraqi and U.S. forces in southern Iraq and Diyala province.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini derided the accusations as well as Daqduq's purported account.
"It is another silly and ridiculous scenario brought up by Americans based on a baseless remark of a person," he said in a brief telephone interview. "It is a sheer lie, and it is ridiculous."
Bergner said Daqduq was captured with two Iraqi brothers, Qayis and Layith Khazali, and that the three were working with Iran to develop a Hezbollah-like network of cells in Iraq called the Iraqi Special Groups. Iran's secretive Quds Force, a unit of its Revolutionary Guards, was overseeing the training, which cost up to $3 million a month and included training at three camps near Tehran, Bergner said.
"Our intelligence reveals that senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity," he said, without defining "senior leadership." When pressed, Bergner said it would be "hard to imagine" that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was unaware of the alleged activities.
In February, U.S. officials in Iraq accused Khamenei of having a hand in the smuggling of explosives across the border from Iran but then backed off that charge. The new allegations come at an especially sensitive time for U.S.-Iranian relations, which have failed to thaw despite meetings between officials from the two countries in Baghdad and in Egypt.
U.S. casualties in Iraq have increased since President Bush announced a military clampdown in February, and a growing number of deaths are being blamed on highly lethal explosives that Washington accuses Iran of providing. If U.S. military deaths continue to number in the triple digits, as they have for each of the past three months, military and political leaders will have a tough time convincing Congress that the war is worthwhile when they deliver a progress report expected in September.
Pointing the finger at Iran and now at Hezbollah could deflect blame from Iraqi security forces and their inability to quell violence. It also underscores the futility of trying to ease the bloodshed with the 28,500 more troops that Bush has deployed to Iraq.
The U.S. military has said in the past that it believed that Iraqi insurgents did not have the sophistication to carry out the January attack in Karbala, south of Baghdad. In that incident, attackers dressed in U.S. uniforms or a close facsimile made it past Iraqi checkpoints at a government building. Five Americans were killed.
The military said yesterday that a third U.S. soldier, Sgt. Evan Vela of Phoenix, Idaho, was charged with murder and obstruction of justice in the deaths of three Iraqis and an attempted cover-up last spring while the troops were stationed near Iskandariyah, 25 miles south of Baghdad.
On Saturday, the military announced murder charges against Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. The three soldiers served in the 1st Battalion, 501st Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Tina Susman write for the Los Angeles Times.