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Thursday, March 27, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

U.S. charges Iran behind renewed violence in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military stated Iran is orchestrating the Shi'ite insurgency in southern Iraq and outbreaks of violence throughout the country.

"There has been a persistent and troublesome meddling by Iran," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said, "not just in Iraq but throughout, I mean, not just in the south of Iraq but throughout the country for that matter, and not just, mind you, on the Shi'a side, but on the Sunni side in some cases as well. The Iranians have played both sides of the fence in this war we're in."

The military said Iran has been training Shi'ite militias to fire rockets in their insurgency against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Senior officers have determined that Iran was directing much of the Shi'ite battles in Basra and Baghdad, in which at least 55 people were killed and 300 injured over the last two days.

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Officials said the so-called Special Groups was blamed for much of the mortar and rocket fire in Baghdad. Special Groups, comprised of current and former Mahdi Army members, was said to have been financed and trained by Iran to attack U.S.-led coalition forces. Formally, the Mahdi Army has been restrained by a ceasefire since August 2007.

"There is no question that the government of Iran has significant influence in Basra, in the province and in southeastern Iraq in general," U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said. "We would love to see the government of Iran fulfill its commitments to help improve security and stability [in Basra] and reduce the activities of those operating outside the law."

Officials said Bergner was expressing the assessment of the U.S. military and Defense Department. They said Iran has employed Shi'ite militias in an effort to control crude oil reserves in southern Iraq.

The United States has been helping the Al Maliki government in the first major counter-insurgency operation in Basra in years. About 2,000 Iraqi troops and police have been sent to the city to destroy the insurgency and organized crime network, believed to be led by the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army.

"The prime minister's assessement is that without this operation there will not be any hopeful prospect of improving security in Basra," Bergner told a news conference on Wednesday.

Many of the Iraqi troops stemmed from elite units. The Iraq Air Force was also operating helicopters around Basra.

"Initial reports are that they are making progress and they have had some tough encounters in their initial day or so of operations," Bergner said.

On Thursday, Shi'ite fighters pounded Iraqi and U.S. targets in Baghdad and demonstrated fierce resistance in Basra. Witnesses said suspected Mahdi Army militia members blew up one of two export pipelines in Basra.

On Wednesday, Al Maliki issued an ultimatum to Shi'ite militias in Basra. The prime minister gave the gunmen until Saturday to surrender their weapons and renounce violence.

British and U.S. aircraft were said to have been helping the Iraqi government offensive in Basra. The Pentagon has stressed that the U.S. military did not deploy troops in Basra.

"We are targeting criminals regardless of their political or other affiliation," Bergner said. "People who break the law are arrested and subject to the rule of law."

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