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Jash al-Madhi Militias Trained With Hizbullah.

The New York Times on Nov. 28 reported a senior US intelligence official as asserting that the Iran-sponsored Hizbullah in Lebanon had trained members of Jaysh al-Mahdi. The official said 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from Jaysh al-Mahdi and other Shi'ite militia groups from Iraq had been trained by Hizbullah in Lebanon, mostly in small groups. A small number of Hizbullah operatives also visited Iraq to help with training there, the official said.

Iran had facilitated the link between Hizbullah and the Shi'ite militias, the official said. The official said Syrian officials had also co-operated, although there was debate among intelligence people about whether the co-operation had the blessing of the senior leadership in Syria. The NYT said the interview with the intelligence official, who "spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by his agency", occurred at a time of intense debate over whether the US should enlist Iranian and Syrian help in stabilising Iraq.

The claim about a Hizbullah role in training Shi'ite militias could strengthen the hand of those in the administration who oppose talks with Iran and Syria. The NYT added: "The account is consistent with a claim made in Iraq this summer by a midlevel commander of the Mahdi Army, who said that his organization had sent 300 fighters to Lebanon, ostensibly to fight with Hezbollah forces there". The NYT quoted the militia commander as saying: "They are the best-trained fighters in the Mahdi Army".

The specific assertions about Iran's role went beyond those made by senior US officials, although Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, did tell Congress in November that "the Iranian hand is stoking violence" in Iraq. The NYT said the intelligence on Hizbullah's role was based "on human sources, technical means and interviews with prisoners captured in Iraq". The officials said the Iranians also provided direct support to Shi'ite militias in Iraq, including explosives and trigger devices for roadside bombs, and training for several thousand fighters, mostly in Iran. The training is carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, they said.

Hayden testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in November that he was initially sceptical of reports of Iran's role but changed his mind after reviewing reports which he said documented support for militia groups. "I'll admit personally", he said at one point in the hearing, "that I have come late to this conclusion, but I have all the zeal of a convert as to the ill effect that the Iranians are having on the situation in Iraq". Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, offered a similar assessment in his testimony to the committee, saying: "I believe there are activities that are currently undertaken by both of those countries, Iran and Syria, that have an adverse impact on what we are trying to achieve in Iraq".

The NYT said that, in the interview on Nov. 27, the senior intelligence official was asked for further details about the role Iran was said to have. The official replied: "They have been a link to Lebanese Hezbollah and have helped facilitate Hezbollah training inside of Iraq, but more importantly Jaysh al-Mahdi members going to Lebanon". The official said the Hizbullah training had been conducted with the knowledge of Sadr.

While Iran wanted a stable Iraq, the official said, it saw an advantage in "managed instability in the short term", to bog down the US military and defeat the Bush administration's objectives in the region. The official added: "There seems to have been a strategic decision taken sometime over late winter or early spring by Damascus, Tehran, along with their partners in Lebanese Hezbollah, to provide more support for Sadr to increase pressure on the US".

Jaysh al-Mahdi and other fighters travelled to Lebanon in groups of 15 and 20, and some were present during the Israeli invasion in July, although there was no indication that they had taken part in the fighting there. Asked what the militia members had learned, the official replied: "Weapons, bomb-making, intelligence, assassinations, the gambit of skill sets". American officials said that at least some Syrian officials were complicit in the arrangement because the militia members went through Syrian territory on their way to Lebanon. The midlevel commander of Jaysh al-Mahdi who was interviewed in Iraq last summer said the group sent to Lebanon was called the Ali al-Hadi Brigade, named for one of the two imams who are buried in the Askariya Shrine in Samarra'. The shrine was destroyed by Neo-Salafi insurgents on Feb. 22, which sparked sectarian killings in Iraq.

According to the Jaysh al-Mahdi commander, the brigade of fighters was organised and dispatched by Abu Mujtaba, the nom de guerre of a senior Jaysh al-Mahdi commander. The brigade was sent by bus to Syria in July, then led across the border into Lebanon. The militia commander said the fighters sent to Lebanon had come from the Iraqi cities of Diwaniya and Basra, as well as from the Shi'ite neighbourhoods of Sho'la and Sadr City in Baghdad. "They travel as normal people from Iraq to Syria", one of the militiamen said, adding: "Once they get to Syria, fighters in Syria take them in". Among American officials, concern over the supposed Iranian, Syrian or Hizbullah role grew recently when an advanced anti-tank weapon, an RPG-29, was used against an American M-1 tank in Iraq.

"The first time we saw it was not in Iraq". Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the US Central Command, said in September, adding: "We saw it in Lebanon. So to me, number one, it indicates an Iranian connection". American intelligence officials said the source of the weapon was still unclear. Abizaid said at the time it was hard to pin down the connection between Hizbullah and Iran, adding: "There are clearly links between Hizbullah training people in Iran to operate in Lebanon and also training people in Iran that are Shi'ite splinter groups that could operate against us in Iraq. These linkages exist, but it is very, very hard to pin down with precision".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Date:Dec 4, 2006
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