U.S.: Iran reneged on pledge to quit supporting Iraqi militias

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2008 

BAGHDAD — The top two U.S. officials in Iraq said this week that Iran was still training Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias, in violation of its promises to Iraqi leaders.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to halt all support of extremist Shiite militias, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told McClatchy on Wednesday.

But Petraeus said the American military continued to capture Iranian-trained militants and to sustain attacks from insurgents using Iranian-made weapons.

"There is no question that Iran has continued to train the so-called special groups," Petraeus said, referring to what the U.S. military calls "rogue" elements of the militia that's loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. "We have individuals in detention, and have detained them fairly recently, who had explained how they received the training, the whole process for going to and from Iran," he said.

Petraeus said that Ahmadinejad made his promises to visiting Iraqi officials in Tehran well before the Iranian president's state visit to Iraq earlier this week.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker made a similar point in an interview Tuesday. "We believe they continue to train the Iraqis," he said. "We know it because we picked up some of these guys and they told us they've been trained in Iran."

Petraeus said Ahmadinejad's subordinates appeared to be ignoring his commitments.

"There is clearly an element of the Iranian structure that either hasn't gotten the word or is disregarding the promise made by Ahmadinejad to his Iraqi counterparts," he said.

U.S. and Iranian officials have met three times together with Iraqi aides to discuss security in Iraq, but the discussions stalled after the last meeting in August. Crocker said the Iranians had postponed the meetings as many as three times and that it was uncertain when the next round of talks would be.

"We've been saying now for months we're ready to have a dialogue to continue the talks, but the Iranians have postponed two or three times now, so we'll see where we are in the wake of the visit," he said in Tuesday's interview.

The Iranian Student News Service reported Wednesday that talks would resume Thursday and continue Friday. Barham Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister, said in Tikrit that he expected the talks to begin this week. But the American Embassy denied that the date was set for Thursday, and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi refused to comment.

During Ahmadinejad's two-day state visit to Baghdad, which ended Monday, he called repeatedly for the United States to leave Iraq, charging that it was destabilizing the region. He also implied that the United States had brought terrorism to the region.

Crocker called the statements amusing.

"His whole visit was possible because of the improvement in security conditions that we and the Iraqis had worked so hard to achieve," Crocker said. "And of course he can also drive around because he doesn't presumably have to worry too much about Iranian-funded extremist militias going after him."

The United States has long accused Iran of funding, training and supporting Shiite militias that attack American forces and Iraqi civilians — a charge that Iran always has denied — and it agreed to the meetings with Iranian officials to address those concerns.

But Crocker said he'd seen no direct results. "There is nothing I can point to and say that this is a direct and positive result of those talks," he said. "You know we have seen developments such as the Sadr suspension of operations announced in August that he just renewed. The Iranians have told Iraqi counterparts that they were the decisive voice on this. Maybe or maybe not, I don't know. You can certainly explain Sadr's decision purely in Iraqi terms."

Crocker was referring to the freeze that Sadr announced after a clash between his Mahdi Army and other Shiites in Karbala last August killed 52 Shiites and was blamed on his militia.

The flow of explosively formed projectiles — armor-piercing bombs alleged to be of Iranian manufacture — rises and falls, and Crocker said he'd seen no progress on that front, either.

"I don't see any positive pattern there that I can attribute to the Iranians," he said.

But the talks will continue, he said.

"I've always felt from the Iranian perspective a carefully calculated assessment of their own long-term interests as opposed to their short-term desire to cause us difficulty would have them very much in support of a stable, secure, democratic Iraq, because that's the kind of Iraq that isn't ever going to do what Saddam did," Crocker said.

Saddam Hussein was Iran's nemesis in the region, and the two countries had an eight-year war.

"You have to take a long-term view of this. It is the only authorized direct channel we have with the Iranians, and I think we should continue to see what might develop out of it," Crocker said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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