Iraqi insurgents train in Iran

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - They wake before dawn, with time to exercise, eat and pray before the day's first class in firing Kalashnikov rifles.

Over the next eight hours, they practice using bazookas or laying roadside bombs, with a break for lunch and mandatory religious instruction.

There is free time in the evening to watch television or play pingpong.

Lights out at 11 p.m.

Such is a typical day at a dusty military base outside Tehran, Iran, where for the past several years members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives have trained Iraqi Shiites to launch attacks against American forces in Iraq, according to accounts given to American interrogators by captured Iraqi fighters.

American officials have long cited Iranian training and weapons as reasons for the lethality of attacks by Shiite fighters in Iraq. Iranian officials deny that such training takes place.

Now, more than 80 pages of newly declassified intelligence documents for the first time describe in detail an elaborate network used by Iraqis to gain entry into Iran and train under Iranian supervision. They offer the most comprehensive account to date to support American claims about Iranian efforts to build a proxy force in Iraq. Those claims have become highly politicized, with Bush administration critics charging that accounts of Iranian involvement have been exaggerated.

The prisoners' accounts cannot be independently verified. Yet the detainees gave strikingly similar details about training compounds in Iran and a clandestine network of safe houses in Iran and Iraq they used to reach the camps.

Although attacks on Americans by Shiite militias have greatly decreased this year, military and intelligence officials said there was evidence that the militias, sometimes referred to as "special groups," were now returning to Iraq to disrupt coming elections and intimidate residents. Maj. Gen. Jeffery W. Hammond, the commander of American forces in Baghdad, said recently that he believed that some militia fighters had returned to the capital in recent weeks.

The documents, compiled by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., are a collection of interrogation reports based on accounts of more than two dozen Shiite fighters captured in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. (The documents are available online at The center is a research organization that compiles and analyzes intelligence documents related to al-Qaida, Iraq, Iran and other topics.

The documents portray an Iranian strategy to use Iraqi Shiites as surrogates, in part to avoid the risk of Iranians being captured in Iraq. In one of the intelligence reports, a prisoner tells his captors that "Iran does not want to fight a direct war" with American forces in Iraq because Tehran worries that the United States would destroy Iran.

American intelligence officials say they believe that since a handful of Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives were captured in Baghdad in 2006, Iran shifted its strategy to bringing small groups of Iraqis into Iran. The Iraqis are then sent back to their country to train larger cadres of Shiite militants.

One senior American intelligence official said there were indications that the training programs in Iran might have significantly expanded this year to accommodate the scores of Iraqi militia fighters who fled Iraq during the Iraqi military's campaigns in Basra and Baghdad.

Brian Fishman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center and a co-author of a new study about Iran's political and military influence in Iraq, said that even though Iran was not in direct command of militia groups in Iraq, the training was one of the means at Iran's disposal to increase or decrease its influence in Iraq at will.

American officials say it is still murky just how much of a direct role senior Iranian officials take in the training, although they say they believe that it takes place with at least the tacit approval of elements of Iran's government.

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