BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military has “multiple” detainees who say the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah is providing training near Tehran for Iraqi militants, a senior military official said on Monday.
Colonel Donald Bacon, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said interrogation transcripts from these detainees were recently given to the Iraqi government.
But it was unclear if the information had been carried to Tehran by a delegation from Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite alliance, which visited Iran last week to urge an end to Iranian backing of Shi’ite militias attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Bacon said the camps near Tehran were run by Iran’s Qods force, a wing of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards.
“We have multiple detainees who state Lebanese Hezbollah are providing training to Iraqis in Iranian (Qods force) training camps near Tehran,” he told Reuters.
Washington accuses the Qods force of funding, arming and training “rogue” elements of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It calls these elements “special groups”.
Tehran blames violence in Iraq on the presence of U.S. forces and denies any interference in Baghdad’s affairs.
The U.S. military said last week “very, very significant” amounts of Iranian arms had been found in the southern city of Basra and also Baghdad during an Iraqi government offensive against militiamen loyal to Sadr that began in late March.
Some of those arms were made in 2008, the military said.
“The government of Iraq had collected information on their own that they gained from their operations in Basra and other areas where special groups are operating. We added to the information they were compiling by sharing what we also recently learned,” Bacon said.
U.S. military officials had planned to put on display some of the recently captured weapons but decided to let the Iraqis make their own case to Iran first.
The U.S. military first publicly accused the Shi’ite Hezbollah group of training Iraqi militants in Iran in mid-2007 after security forces caught two senior militants in Iraq in March 2007. One of those was a Lebanese Hezbollah veteran called Ali Mussa Daqduq, the U.S. military has said.
“Since then, we have captured other Iraqis who have discussed their training in Iran and who state many of their instructors were Lebanese Hezbollah,” Bacon said.
The New York Times, in a report published on Monday, quoted American officials as saying it appeared that Iran, possibly to be less obtrusive, was bringing small groups of Shi’ite militants into the country.
They were then taught how to train others back in Iraq in techniques for firing rockets, fighting as snipers and building explosively formed penetrators — a lethal kind of roadside bomb made of Iranian components.
Iraq said on Sunday Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had ordered the formation of a committee to compile evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq that would then be presented to Tehran.
Last month, the top two U.S. officials in Iraq accused Iran, Syria and Hezbollah of stoking recent fighting in Baghdad, saying Tehran and Damascus were pursuing a “Lebanisation strategy” in Iraq.
U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker said Iran and Syria were using a political strategy in Iraq similar to one he said they have employed in Lebanon, by seeking to co-opt elements of the Shi’ite community as “instruments of Iranian force”.
Additional reporting by Peter Cooney in Washington, edited by Richard Meares