Officials: Hezbollah trained Shiite militiamen in Iraq

The allegations point to Iran waging a proxy war against the United States.

BAGHDAD (AP) — Hezbollah instructors trained Shiite militiamen at remote camps in southern Iraq until three months ago when they slipped across the border to Iran — presumably to continue instruction on Iranian soil, according to two Shiite lawmakers and a top army officer.

The three Iraqis claim the Lebanese Shiites were also involved in planning some of the most brazen attacks against U.S.-led forces, including the January 2007 raid on a provincial government compound in Karbala in which five Americans died.

The allegations, made in separate interviews with The Associated Press, point not only to an Iranian hand in the Iraq war, but also to Hezbollah’s willingness to expand beyond its Lebanese base and assume a broader role in the struggle against U.S. influence in the Middle East.

All this suggests that Shiite-dominated Iran is waging a proxy war against the United States to secure a dominant role in majority-Shiite Iraq, which has supplanted Lebanon as Tehran’s top priority in the Middle East.

“The stakes are much higher in Iraq, where there is a Shiite majority, oil, the shrine cities and borders with Saudi Arabia,” said analyst Farid al-Khazen, a Christian Lebanese lawmaker whose party is allied with Hezbollah.

“The big story is Iraq, and the Americans unwittingly opened it up for the Iranians” by their invasion in 2003, al-Khazen said.

The allegations come as the United States and Iran are engaged in a showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program and each country’s role in Iraq.

Iran, Hezbollah’s mentor, denies giving any support to Shiite extremists in Iraq.

But the three Iraqis who spoke to the AP said the Iranians prefer to use Hezbollah instructors because as Arabs, they can communicate better with the Iraqi Shiites and maintain a lower profile than Farsi-speakers from Iran.

For Hezbollah, a high-risk role in Iraq could give the Lebanese movement leverage with the United States and broaden its appeal within the Arab world where anti-American sentiment remains strong.

Iraqi officials have said little about a Hezbollah role in this country. However, President Jalal Talabani told U.S.-funded Alhurra television this week that “there have been several occasions” when Hezbollah members or those who “claim to belong to Hezbollah” have been detained in Iraq.

He gave no further details.

But the two Iraqi lawmakers and the military officer said Hezbollah instructors work only with members of the Iraqi Shiite “special groups,” the U.S. military’s name for splinter factions of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. believes that Iran’s elite Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, supports the special groups.

All three Iraqis spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

The lawmakers belong to al-Sadr’s movement and were involved in the creation of the Mahdi Army in 2003. The military officer’s job gives him access to highly classified intelligence information.

They said Hezbollah began training Shiite militiamen in the second half of 2006 at two camps — Deir and Kutaiban — east of Basra near the Iranian border. They fled across the border in late March or early April this year after U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched a crackdown against militias in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

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