Iraqi insurgents receiving new weapons from Iran, U.S. military chief says

( LatWp ) - The chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq asserted that Iranian-made arms manufactured as recently as last year have reached Sunni insurgents here, marking, if true, a new development in the four-year-old conflict.

Citing testimony from detainees in U.S. custody, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Iranian intelligence operatives were backing Sunni militants in Iraq while at the same time training Shiite extremists in Iran.

``We have, in fact, found some cases recently where Iranian intelligence services have provided to some Sunni insurgent groups some support,'' Caldwell told reporters, adding that he was aware of only Shiite extremists being trained inside Iran. Caldwell cited a collection of munitions on a nearby table that he said were made in Iran and found two days ago in a majority Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.

Khalil Sadati, media adviser for the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, denied his government was backing militant groups inside Iraq. ``There's no such thing.'' said Sadati. ``Why don't you ask the Americans why they continue to make accusations without any evidence?''

For months, U.S. officials have alleged that Iranian entities have provided Shiite militias with weapons, including potent roadside bombs the military calls ``EFPs,'' or explosively former penetrators, that have killed dozens of U.S. soldiers. Wednesday marked the first time that U.S. officials have claimed that Sunni insurgents were also receiving arms from Iran.

It was unclear what motivation Iran, a Shiite theocracy, would have for backing Sunni insurgents, many of whom are staunchly anti-Iranian and fear the rise of Shiite power in the region. Critics have dismissed the U.S. claims, saying that evidence provided so far gives no solid proof that Iran has supplied weapons to Iraqi militants.

Wednesday's allegations arrive at a particularly tense period for U.S-Iranian relations. The U.S. military has in custody five Iranian nationals that U.S. officials claim had entered Iraq to foment violence against U.S. soldiers and Iraqis, but whom the Iranians say are diplomats. An Iranian diplomat who was released from captivity inside Iraq last week says that he was tortured by the Central Intelligence Agency. He was abducted by unknown gunmen Feb. 4 on a downtown Baghdad street.

``The CIA had no role in this individual's release or capture. And allegations that he was tortured by the agency are ludicrous,'' spokesman Mark Mansfield said Wednesday from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Caldwell also painted a mixed picture of the violence in Iraq eight weeks into a security plan intended to quell violence in the capital. From January to March, civilian deaths dropped 26 percent in Baghdad, he said. But violence surged in many areas outside the capital, resulting in a rise in civilian deaths across Iraq over the same period. Most of the victims were killed by car bombs and suicide bombers, he said.

From February, when the security plan was launched, to March, the total number of deaths--civilians, Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops--rose by 10 percent, he said. ``What does this mean? It means that we still have a lot of work to do,'' said Caldwell. ``The goal of these murderers is to ignite a cycle of violence. They want to murder people of one sect to try to provoke revenge killings, so that this country will be divided and weak.''

Also Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for ``urgent action'' to better protect Iraqi civilians from the ongoing violence. The call came as the group released a report on the ``deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq.''

Caldwell said an Iraqi man turned up two days ago at a neighborhood security outpost in the predominantly Sunni al-Jihad neighborhood and tipped off soldiers to the munitions allegedly made in Iran. He directed them to a house, and upon arriving, the soldiers spotted a black Mercedes sedan, said Caldwell. The arms, including mortars and rockets, were inside the car and its trunk, as well as buried on the property. The house was empty, he said.

Several mortar rounds on display at the news conference had markings that read ''2006,'' suggesting they were manufactured--and had arrived in Iraq--after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The markings on all the munitions were in English. Maj. Marty Weber, an explosives expert, said that countries selling arms on the global market tend to use English lettering.

``The death and violence in Iraq are bad enough without this outside interference,'' said Caldwell. `` Iran and all of Iraq's neighbors really need to respect Iraq's sovereignty and allow the people of this country the time and the space to choose their own future.''

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