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U.S. diplomat wary about Iran's role in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker expressed wariness yesterday about Iranian intentions in Iraq, saying that even if Iran-backed militias have decreased activities here, he was not convinced that the Islamic regime was committed to helping stabilize Iraq.

U.S. military officials have cited the drop in roadside bombs and mortar and rocket attacks in recent weeks as a sign that Iran, which Washington accuses of fomenting unrest in Iraq, is altering its behavior. Many have said they remain in "wait-and-see" mode to determine if the change represents a firm policy change.

Crocker said he wasn't swayed yet.

"Is it a conscious policy decision on the part of the Iranian government to use all its influence to bring these things down?" he said, referring to violent incidents. "Or does it involve the Iranians saying, 'Let's throttle it back, get everyone comfortable, and then put the pedal down again?'"

Crocker made his comments to foreign journalists during a briefing that came as Iraq, the United States and Iran try to set a date for a fourth round of talks on Iraq's security.

Previous meetings have done little to improve U.S.-Iran relations. Iran denies Washington's claims that it has orchestrated the smuggling of sophisticated bombs and other weapons to anti-U.S. Shiite militias in Iraq.

U.S. military officials say the number of such bombs being detonated and discovered has dropped drastically since the summer. Crocker said, however, that they continue, and he cited the assassination earlier in December of a U.S.-allied provincial police commander. Crocker said the explosive used in the attack had the sophistication of those linked to Iranian manufacturing.

Referring to the decline in such attacks, Crocker said, "If it's a case of the Iranians moving down a road of using influence to reduce rather than foment violence, that is a good thing." But, he added, "They would still in our view clearly have some way to go."

Looking ahead to 2008, Crocker said one of the most crucial tasks facing the Iraqi government was to find jobs for the tens of thousands of volunteer security workers known as Concerned Local Citizens. The volunteers, who are paid about $10 per day, work alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces against insurgents. The United States credits them with helping turn around violence in much of the country, particularly in Sunni Muslim areas where the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police are in short supply.

On Fox News Sunday, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said, "All of us, Iraqi and coalition alike, want to see these neighborhood watch organizations, so-called concerned local citizens ... incorporated into the legitimate Iraqi security forces."

But only 20 percent to 25 percent of the estimated 70,000 volunteers can be absorbed into the security force. How to incorporate the rest into state jobs is one of the challenges ahead.

Crocker said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government had agreed to match $155 million in U.S. funds for job-creation programs for the others. This would include vocational training and educational programs.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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