Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Iranian connection: from Tehran to Baghdad

While US-led 'surge' keeps lid on capital, thousands of Shia militia are reported in Iran preparing for all-out confrontation

The Independent

"The modest initial gains made by the US-led security "surge" in Baghdad face a devastating new threat as thousands of Iraqi Shias are reported to be receiving military training in Iran.....

There are also indications that violence has been displaced outside Baghdad, with the overall death rate among civilians remaining steady, despite a fall in the capital. The effect has been the opposite for American troops: while losses have stayed roughly the same across the country, the rate of American deaths in Baghdad during the first seven weeks of the "surge" nearly doubled from the previous period......

Abu Rafed, 32, fought for the Mahdi Army in the battles for Najaf during the summer of 2004, when hundreds of militants were killed by superior US forces. He said the fierce combat had made it obvious a new approach was needed if outgunned guerrillas were to inflict defeats on the Americans.

"This is a new plan now for the Mahdi Army, it is part of a new strategy," he said. "We know we are against a strong enemy and we must learn proper methods and techniques."

Both he and another militant, 39-year-old Abu Amer, who spoke to The Independent on Sunday through an Iraqi intermediary, asking for their full names to be withheld, said they had undergone training at a base in Jalil Azad, near Tehran. Though extremely secretive about their activities there, they said they used live ammunition on firing ranges and learned house-to-house fighting in a replica of a typical city street. There was also classroom-based tuition.

Abu Rafed estimated a total of almost 4,000 Iraqi Shias, including "many important Mahdi Army leaders", had received training there last month alone, living at the camp for weeks at a time. He said the number of Iraqi Shias arriving there had increased significantly since the start of the "surge" in February.

Abu Amer said: "The training was done by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I saw Iraqi fighters from Missan, Basra, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah [areas of southern Iraq]. They were mainly Mahdi Army, but not all of them." More Iraqi Shias had sought military instruction, he added, after the 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine, the event widely blamed for triggering widespread sectarian war between Iraq's Sunnis and Shias.

Although the vast majority of American casualties have been inflicted by Sunni insurgents, the US military views the Mahdi Army as the most dangerous faction in Iraq's sectarian war. It has frequently battled against British and US forces in Iraq, most recently in Diwaniyah, and has also been blamed for carrying out death squad killings of Sunnis and political assassinations. In recent months hundreds of its members have been arrested.These moves have prompted many Sadrists to believe they are on the brink of an all-out confrontation with the US Army......."

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