With Iran’s help, Hizbollah trains Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen
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A senior American intelligence official said on Monday that the Iranian-backed group Hizbollah had been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Shi'ite militia in Iraq that is headed by Muqtada al-Sadr.
The official said that between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militia groups from Iraq had been trained by Hizbollah in Lebanon, mostly in small groups. A small number of Hizbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training there, the official said.
Iran has facilitated the link between Hizbollah and the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate among intelligence officials about whether it has the blessing of the senior leadership in Syria, the official said.
The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity under rules set by his agency, and discussed Iran's role in response to questions from a reporter.
The interview occurred at a time of intense debate over whether the United States should enlist Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq. A commission headed by James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic Party lawmaker, is expected to call for direct talks with Tehran. The claim about Hizbollah's role in training Shi'ite militias could strengthen the hand of those within the Bush administration who oppose talks with Iran.
The new American account is consistent with a claim made in Iraq this summer by a mid-level commander of the Mahdi Army, who said his organization had sent 300 fighters to Lebanon, ostensibly to fight with Hizbollah forces there. "They are the best-trained fighters in the Mahdi Army," the militia commander said in an interview in Iraq. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The specific assertions about Iran's role went beyond those made publicly by senior American officials, though Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, did tell Congress earlier this month that "the Iranian hand is stoking violence" in Iraq.
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