By Peter Graff
BAGHDAD, Dec 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Iraq praised Iran on Sunday for helping to curb Shi‘ite militia violence in Iraq, using some of the warmest language Washington has employed toward its arch foe over Iraq.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Washington believed Iran may be behind a ceasefire announced by Iraqi Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and that it had helped to ensure the ceasefire stuck in areas where it wielded influence.
But he also indicated that U.S. authorities still see Iran’s role as unpredictable and its motives opaque.
"I‘m very cautious about predicting or analysing what the Iranians are doing, because we’re not there," Crocker told journalists in Baghdad.
"But we have seen a reduction in violent action on the part of extremist militias -- not an elimination, but a reduction.
"We have seen Moqtada al-Sadr’s call for a freeze, and then his call for a renewal of that freeze. The Iranians have indicated -- not to us but to others -- that they have had a role in all of this. If that’s the case, then it’s good.
Asked who had provided the information that Iran was behind Sadr’s freeze, he said it had come from Iraqi authorities.
The United States has blamed Iran for providing training and weapons -- especially missiles and sophisticated roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) -- to Iraqi Shi‘ite militia. It uses the term "special groups" to refer to militia units it says use such Iranian weapons.
Crocker said such attacks had become less frequent, although he said an EFP was used earlier this month to kill the police chief of Babil province, a mainly Shi‘ite area south of Baghdad where security forces have clashed with Sadr’s militia.
"If Sadr has started the policy and the Iranians have used their influence to make it stick in areas where there are ‘special groups’ and they’ve got far more influence then he does -- then that’s a positive development," he said.
Earlier this year, the United States and Iran set up a committee to discuss security in Iraq, a development seen as a diplomatic breakthrough for two countries that have had only limited contacts for 30 years.
The committee last met in August at a time when Washington was loudly accusing Iran of fomenting violence and helping Shi‘ite militia kill U.S. troops. But Sadr declared a six-month ceasefire by his Mehdi Army militia later that month, and U.S. forces say Shi‘ite militia attacks quickly declined.
Sadr’s spokesman said last week that he was considering extending the ceasefire when it expired in February.
The next meeting of the Iran-U.S. security committee was due to take place on Dec. 18 but was postponed because of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Crocker said U.S. and Iranian officials were still negotiating a new date, but he expected the meeting to take place within the next few weeks. (Editing by Giles Elgood)