Hezbollah training Iraqi militants in Iran, U.S. says

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Hezbollah militants have been training Iraqi militia fighters at a camp near the Iranian capital, according to U.S. interrogation reports that the United States has supplied to the Iraqi government.

A U.S. official said the account of Hezbollah's role was provided by four Shiite militia members who were captured in Iraq late last year and questioned separately.

The United States has long charged that the Iranians were training Iraqi militia fighters in Iran, which Tehran has consistently denied, and there have been previous reports about Hezbollah operatives in Iraq. But the interrogation reports provided by the Americans about Hezbollah's role at the Iranian camp offer important details about Iranian assistance to the militias, including efforts Iran appears to be making to train the fighters in unobtrusive ways.

The account of the interrogation reports was given to the Iraqi government, along with other data about captured Iranian arms, before it sent a delegation to Tehran last week to discuss allegations of Iranian aid to militia groups.

It is not known whether the delegation confronted its Iranian hosts with the information from the interrogation reports, or how the Iranians responded.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government announced yesterday that it would conduct its own inquiry into allegations of Iranian intervention in Iraq and document any interference.

"We have experienced in the past that Iran interfered and has special groups in Iraq, but Iran also had evidence that they were participating in positive ways in security," Ali al-Dabagah, a senior Iraqi government spokesman, said in an interview. "We would like the Iranians to keep their commitment, the commitments they made in meetings with the prime minister and with other groups that have visited them. They had made the promise that Iran would be playing a supportive role."

President Bush and other U.S. officials, in public castigations of Iran, have said the Iranians have long sought to arm and train Iraqi militias, which the U.S. military has called "special groups."

In a possible effort to be less obtrusive, it appears that Iran is bringing small groups of Iraqi Shiite militants to camps in Iran where they are taught how to do their own training, U.S. officials say.

The militants then return to Iraq to teach comrades how to fire rockets and mortars, fight as snipers or assemble explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb made of Iranian components, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. officials describe this approach as "training the trainers."

The training, the U.S. officials say, is carried out at several camps near Tehran that are overseen by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Command's Quds Force, and the instruction is carried out by militants from the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, which has long been supported by the Quds Force. U.S. officials say the Hezbollah militants perform several important roles for the Iranians.

First, they say, the Iranians, who are Persians, believe it is useful to have Arabs train fellow Arabs. Second, Hezbollah has considerable experience in planning operations and using explosives in Lebanon.

According to U.S. officials, the four Shiite militants who provided the information on Hezbollah's role were captured between September and December after they had returned from training in Iran. The militants were questioned individually and provided similar accounts, the U.S. officials said.

The captured militiamen described themselves in the accounts as part of a class of 16 militants who crossed into Iran from southern Iraq and were taken to a training camp near Tehran, where they studied in a classroom setting and in the field. Some had been in Iran several times before as part of a program that U.S. officials said was aimed at turning them into "master trainers" and which could last several years.

According to their interrogation reports, the militiamen believed that militants from other countries were also being trained at the camp, an impression based on hearing snippets of conversations in other dialects and languages. But the group was kept separate and was not allowed to mingle with other trainers at the camp.

U.S. officials say they believe that similar classes have been arranged for other groups of Iraqi militants but that the effort appears to be compartmentalized to ensure security.

A U.S. official said that an Iraqi who facilitated the militiamen's travel to Iraq was also captured and confessed that he had been paid by an Iranian. The official summed up the information from the interrogation reports but did not make them available. He declined to be identified because the information has not yet been publicly released.

Other evidence of Iranian involvement that U.S. officials have provided to Iraqi officials includes details of captured Iranian arms, such as 81 mm mortars and 107 mm rockets that U.S. officials say bear markings indicating that they were manufactured in 2008. The weapons have a particular type of fuse and are painted in a way that U.S. experts say is unique to Iran.

The Iraqi military also captured Iranian-made weapons with 2008 markings during their operations in the southern port of Basra last month and has captured Shiite militants, according to U.S. officials.

The reports of Iran's training program and the discovered weapons caches are politically very significant. When al-Maliki visited Iran in August, the Iranians sought to reassure the Iraqis that they were not intervening in Iraq's internal affairs.

The Bush administration, which has sought to draw attention to Iran's support for militias, has cited the interrogation reports and evidence of recently manufactured Iranian arms as an indication that the Iranian officials are not keeping their word.

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