BAGHDAD — In an unusual initiative, five Iraqi lawmakers on Thursday presented intelligence photos and other evidence to the Iranian government that Tehran is arming and training Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, and they demanded that it stop, senior Iraqi government officials said.
U.S. officials hailed the meeting at the Iranian foreign ministry as a sign that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite-led government was standing up to Iran, its powerful Shiite neighbor. The American military says Iran is the key sponsor of militias battling U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Iraqi government is forcing the Iranians to make a choice: "Do they want to work with the government of Iraq or are they going to subvert the government of Iraq?"
The Pentagon accuses Iran of supporting the Mahdi Army, the militia of hardline cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who has urged his followers to work to end the American occupation of Iraq. Maliki launched an offensive against Shiite militias in the southern port city of Basra in March. Iran's point man for Iraq, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, intervened to reduce the violence, but clashes have escalated in Baghdad between Sadr supporters and Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S. military.
U.S. troops have been drawn into those clashes, engaging in brutal street combat in recent days in Baghdad's Sadr City slum. Militants have ambushed Army soldiers, peppered their outposts with gunfire and fired grenades at Iraqi checkpoints.
The Pentagon blamed attacks by Iranian-armed Shiite militants for a sharp increase in U.S. military casualties in April. Fifty-one soldiers were killed in Iraq in April, the deadliest month since September, according to icasualties.org, an independent Web site that tracks military fatalities.
Another U.S. soldier died Thursday when a car bomb targeted a U.S. military convoy in central Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Eight other people were killed and 23 were injured, including two U.S. soldiers, according to the Iraqi police.
Elsewhere in Iraq, two suicide bombers blew themselves up amid a wedding procession east of Baqouba, police said. Thirty-six people were killed and 72 were injured, including many women and children.
Iraqi officials said that the five lawmakers went to Iran carrying documents, photographs and other materials gathered by Iraqi security forces and intelligence agencies. Iran has repeatedly denied charges that it's arming militias in Iraq.
"It was their mission to explain the reality in Iraq, and explain why the prime minister and security forces are targeting the Mahdi Army," said Reda Jawad Taqi, a Shiite lawmaker and member of Maliki's United Iraqi Alliance political bloc.
"The government wants to end this story of Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army."
Taqi and other officials said that the delegation was instructed not to negotiate with Iranian officials or to meet with Sadr, who's thought to be in Iran — just to present evidence and urge a stop to Iranian involvement.
Maliki has ordered all militias to surrender their weapons, a demand that Sadr has rejected. At a news conference on Wednesday, Maliki sounded a tough note.
"The government will continue its effort to disarm by force and make the gangs submit to the law," Maliki said.
(Nancy A. Youssef in Fort Bliss, Texas, and special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed.)