The US military on Wednesday charged publicly for the first time that Shiite Iranian intelligence agents were supporting Sunni extremists who fight against American-led forces in Iraq.
Over the past two years, Washington and US commanders have repeatedly accused Iranian elements of aiding Shiite militias in their sectarian fight against Sunni Arabs and in waging attacks on US troops in Iraq.
Tehran has constantly denied arming groups in Iraq.
On Wednesday, displaying what he said were newly manufactured Iranian weapons found in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell said US authorities were now aware of Iranian help to the Sunni extremists who lead the anti-American insurgency.
“We do have now some information that Iranian intelligence agencies have supported some Sunni extremist groups,” the military spokesman said.
He did not name those groups but said the latest indication of Iranian influence on insurgents came after interrogating detainees.
“There are groups receiving training in
Iran and modern weapons are smuggled in Iraq to be used against Iraqi and coalition forces,” he claimed. “We know that training has been going on as recently as this month.”
The US commander accused the Iranians of training Iraqi groups on how to assemble explosively-formed projectiles — a type of armour-piercing roadside bomb that has caused many coalition casualties.
“We know that training goes down there in Iran,” said Caldwell, without giving further details or indicating any source for the intelligence.
Such devices have been blamed for the deaths of at least 170 US service personnel since May 2004, largely in Baghdad and southern Shiite regions of Iraq. The molten metal they emit when they explode can cut through armour.
Caldwell displayed a cache of recently made explosives, bearing dates of 2005 and 2006, which he said were made in Iran and were found on Monday in a black Mercedes car in Baghdad’s Sunni district of Jihad outside a house.
President Jalal Talabani said shortly afterwards he was in contact with five rebel groups fighting US-led forces in a bid to rope them into politics.
“We are in the final stage of entering into a dialogue with them,” he said in a statement released by his office without naming the groups in question.
On Wednesday, the United States ruled out releasing five Iranians held in Iraq without charge since January, despite warnings from Tehran it was unlikely to attend a May conference on Iraq’s security unless they were freed.
White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said they were not expected to be freed in the near future. The US military believes the five are intelligence officers and accuses them of aiding the insurgency.
Johndroe also rejected charges from Iranian state television that the United States had abused an Iranian diplomat during a two-month captivity in Iraq.
“The United States was not involved in his detention, and any suggestion of torture is baseless,” Johndroe said after Iranian television showed footage of Jalal Sharafi’s wounds and called them proof of US torture.
The US military also announced the deaths of another two American soldiers in roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad, taking its latest fatalities in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 3,287, according to
Caldwell said four US Apache helicopters were hit during a battle with militants in the capital’s Al-Fadhel district on Tuesday in a fight that left four Iraqi soldiers dead and 16 US soldiers wounded.
Earlier on Wednesday, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl said 20 militants had been “killed in action” during the fight, which erupted in a Sunni district in the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi and US troops have waged a massive military clampdown in Baghdad for two months that has seen American officials upbeat about signs of progress.
But the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a new report that the operation had not yet stabilised Baghdad.
“It’s clear for us that the humanitarian situation is steadily worsening and affecting in one way or another, directly or indirectly, all Iraqis today,” ICRC’s director Pierre Kraehenbuehl told journalists in Geneva.
A key Iraqi Shiite political bloc also issued another threat to withdraw support for Baghdad’s embattled Shiite-led government.
The group of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said it would withdraw support after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rejected demands to set a time-table for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.