BAGHDAD - For the first time, the U.S. military said on Sunday that Iranian soldiers are in Iraq training insurgents to attack American forces.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a top U.S. commander who is in charge of a large swath of Iraq south of Baghdad, believes there are about 50 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in his battlefield area, military spokeswoman Maj. Alayne Conway said.
Conway said that U.S.-led forces have not caught any of the Iranians, but she said military intelligence and recently discovered caches of weapons with Iranian markings on them indicate that the Iranians are there.
Lynch's assertion is the latest in a series of accusations leveled by military officials against Iran. They have warned that Iraq's neighbor is actively supplying Shiite insurgents - specifically, the Mahdi Army - with deadly weapons that have killed dozens of U.S. soldiers.
President Bush has said that Iran will face unspecified consequences if it continues to assist insurgents. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are considering designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military force that serves as the guardian of Iran's Islamic state, as a terrorist organization.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, however, recently made a friendly visit to Tehran, where he glad-handed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has characterized U.S. accusations against Iran as a spat that he's trying to help mediate.
U.S. military officials say that Iran has supplied the Mahdi Army, which is loosely controlled by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, with explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs. Such devices have proven much more lethal against armored vehicles than the notorious improvised explosive devices, also known as IEDs.
Spokeswoman Conway said that since April, the military has found 217 weapons in four provinces south of Baghdad that it suspects were supplied by Iran. She said the military has not caught any Iranians or Iraqis smuggling weapons across the Iran-Iraq border, but she believes it soon will.
"Just because we're not finding them doesn't mean they're not there," Conway said.
She said a brigade of about 2,000 soldiers from the country of Georgia will soon be patrolling the border and may find further evidence of Iranian meddling.
Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made a surprise visit to Iraq on Sunday - the first time a top French official has set foot here since the war began in 2003.
Also Sunday, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, said that a preliminary investigation into the Aug. 13 kidnapping of five Ministry of Oil officials indicates that the guards who were supposed to protect a ministry building in Baghdad instead intentionally allowed gunmen dressed in military uniforms to enter the premises.
The intruders kidnapped the deputy minister and four general directors, all of whom have yet to be freed.
"We are following up on the investigation and will bring these people to justice when they are apprehended," Atta said.
The general spoke to reporters during a joint press conference with Rear Adm. Mark Fox, a U.S. military spokesman, who announced that the Iraqi military now has 165,000 trained soldiers and that there are 227,000 trained Iraqi police officers. He said plans are in place to ready tens of thousands of new recruits for both security forces each year.
Fox said he didn't know how large an Iraqi security presence is needed before U.S. troops can start pulling out of Iraq or how long that will take.
Determining an appropriate security force size is "a work in progress, quite frankly," Fox said.
(Special correspondent Mohammed Al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007