Iraq sees help from Iran

The Baltimore Sun

Baghdad -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has secured a pledge from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to help cut off weapons, funding and other support to militiamen in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi officials said yesterday.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said there were signs of a slight drop in the types of attacks associated with Shiite militants since the deal was reached last month, and he dangled the possibility that U.S. and Iraqi officials might be able to do something in return. But he said it was too early to tell whether there has been a real reduction in Iranian support.

"Honestly, and I really mean this, all of us would really welcome the opportunity to see this, confirm it and even - in whatever way we could - to reciprocate," Petraeus told reporters on a visit to the Baghdad neighborhood of Karada. "But it really is wait and see time right now still."

Iranian officials have made no announcement of such a commitment and could not immediately be reached for comment yesterday. But they have consistently rejected U.S. accusations that members of the elite Al Quds force of the Iranian National Guard are stoking the bloodshed in Iraq by supplying advanced weaponry and other help to rogue Shiite militiamen.

Al-Maliki's aides characterized the agreement reached during a visit to Iran as a promise to better police the porous border between the two countries.

"The prime minister has been saying recently that the Iranians have been giving him strong promises that they will do better in terms of controlling the borders, and that the results of these promises are starting to be felt ... as far as the trafficking of weapons is concerned," said an official from al-Maliki's office who accompanied him to New York last week for the U.N. General Assembly. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to address the media.

Faruq Abdullah, one of al-Maliki's political advisers, said: "The agreement included a promise by the Iranian government to increase the number of Iranian forces on the border and to increase the efforts to guard the 1,000-kilometer-long frontier."

But Petraeus said al-Maliki told him the agreement went further than that.

"The president of Iran pledged to Prime Minister Maliki during a recent meeting that he would stop the flow of weapons, the training, the funding and the directing of these militia extremists that have been such a huge problem really for Iraq," Petraeus said.

He reiterated charges that Iran is supplying rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, large rockets and armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which have been used in attacks against U.S. forces.

"Certainly, indirect fire is quite a bit down," Petraeus said, referring to rockets and mortar rounds, "EFPs arguably a bit down, some of these others we haven't seen for a bit. But it certainly is nothing sufficient to call even statistically significant, much less evidence that there has been a real reduction in the assistance provided." He did not provide the figures.

The apparent dip in such attacks could also be connected to a decision by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to suspend the operations of his Mahdi militiamen for six months.

Analysts cautioned against interpreting the commitment as an admission of responsibility by Ahmadinejad.

All sides, however, have been shaken by a recent escalation in clashes in the southern provinces of Iraq, where rival Shiite factions supported by Iran are vying for political influence and control of the region's oil wealth. Tensions between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and its main rival, the Badr Organization, exploded during a major religious festival in Karbala last month.

While attacks by Shiite militants appear to have dropped, Petraeus said the Sunni Arab militant group Al-Qaida in Iraq has stepped up operations since declaring an offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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