U.S. sees Iran and Syria "Lebanon" gambit in Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top two U.S. officials in Iraq accused Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Tuesday of fueling recent fighting in Baghdad, saying Tehran and Damascus were pursuing a “Lebanization strategy” in Iraq.

“The hand of Iran was very clear in recent weeks,” U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, said at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Iran denies U.S. charges that it is stoking violence in Iraq and instead blames the bloodshed on the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops.

But Petraeus told lawmakers that Iran’s Qods Force and Hezbollah were funding, training, arming and directing renegade Shi’ite groups he blamed for recent deadly rocket and mortar attacks in the Iraqi capital.

“Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq,” said the four-star general.

Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker appeared before the Senate to discuss security and political progress in Iraq and the prospects for U.S. force withdrawals.

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.”

“They’re using that same partnership in Iraq, in my view, although the weights are reversed, with Iran having the greater weight and Syria the lesser. But they are working in tandem together against us and against a stable Iraqi state,” the ambassador said.

Crocker said Tehran has condemned militant violence against Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound.

Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on militias two weeks ago in Basra, provoking widespread clashes with supporters of anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr on Tuesday threatened to end a truce widely credited with contributing to a steep drop in violence since last summer.

Petraeus told the Senate that he was disappointed in Maliki’s execution of the operation in Basra, which was launched before the full Iraqi security force was in place.

“It was not adequately planned or prepared,” the general said.

Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Philip Barbara