BAGHDAD — Iran is arming, training and funding members of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah in Iraq and using it as a "proxy" to wage war against American forces, a senior U.S. military spokesman said Monday.
Hezbollah, or Party of God, emerged in Lebanon in 1982 and receives funding and arms from Iran. It has a history of kidnapping and killing in its long-standing conflict with Israel, and provoked last summer's Israeli intervention in Lebanon.
The news briefing by Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner marked the first time that a top U.S. military official had directly linked the radical Islamic group to violence in Iraq.
Citing documents and confessions from captured militants, including a Lebanese operative who's worked with Hezbollah for more than two decades, Bergner also said that the Quds Force, a unit of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, had helped plan a Jan. 20 raid on a government compound in Karbala in which five U.S. soldiers had been killed.
Bergner didn't say whether Iranian Quds units were operating in Iraq, and stopped short of saying that Iran itself is waging war against the United States. He said Iran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq reached to Tehran's highest levels of government.
An Iranian-fueled Hezbollah paramilitary presence in Shiite-dominated Iraq would further complicate American efforts to help reconcile the deep religious divide between Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims, who lost power after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Bergner produced documents and names of 21 Iranian-backed militants who'd been captured or killed while operating throughout Iraq, three of whom died in clashes with U.S. forces.
U.S. officials previously have blamed Iran for arming Shiite militias in Iraq.
Iranian government officials have denied that they're arming groups in Iraq.
Bergner said Quds supplied "special groups" of Shiite militants in Iraq with weapons and up to $3 million a month. "Without this support," Bergner said, "these special groups would be hard-pressed to conduct their operations in Iraq."
It's unclear under what conditions the captured men confessed, and there was no way to verify the authenticity of the documents independently, some of which Bergner presented on a large-screen monitor.
Two of the key sources for the new U.S. allegations were Ali Musa Daqduq, a Lebanese, and Qayis Khazali, an Iraqi leader of a "rogue" Shiite militia, both of whom were arrested March 20 in the southern city of Basra.
Daqduq and Khazali, a former spokesman for anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, played "particularly important" leadership roles in working with Iran, Bergner said.
When Khazali was captured, American forces found a 22-page "in-depth planning and lessons-learned document" related to January's highly sophisticated attack on the government compound in Karbala and other operations, Bergner said.
About a dozen gunmen with American-looking uniforms, vehicles and identification cards entered the compound, killing one U.S. soldier in the initial attack and four others shortly after abducting them.
Daqduq and Khazali told their U.S. captors that "senior leadership within the Quds force knew of and supported planning" for the Karbala attack, Bergner said.
Daqduq was carrying false identity cards when American forces captured him, Bergner said. He initially claimed to be deaf and unable to speak, to conceal his Lebanese accent. Bergner said Daqduq had served Hezbollah for the past 24 years.
Based on interrogations and documents — including a personal journal reportedly belonging to Daqduq — Bergner said Iraqi militants in groups of 20 to 60 received guerrilla military training at one of three camps near Tehran that were run by Quds forces, along with Hezbollah operatives. They're trained in high-powered roadside bombs, mortars, rockets, intelligence gathering, sniper rifles and kidnapping, Bergner said. When they return to Iraq, they form or join "special groups" to carry out attacks.
"Our intelligence reveals that the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity," he said. He said it would be "hard to imagine" that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was unaware of it.
U.S. military officials on Monday displayed a cache of mortar rounds, artillery shells and C-4 explosives at the briefing in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The materials used in the mortar fuses and C-4 are made only in Iran, a U.S. military official said.
Elsewhere on Monday, one student was killed and eight were wounded in Khalis, about six miles north of Baqouba in the Diyala province north of Baghdad, when an Iraqi army patrol fired shots near the al Rafedain secondary school, according to local police.
Two border officers were killed and an undisclosed number wounded when a roadside bomb exploded early Monday while they were on patrol north of Mandili, east of Baqouba. The Diyala province borders Iran.
One civilian was killed and 12 others wounded Monday afternoon when mortar rounds hit neighborhoods in Khalis.
(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer.)