updated 11/28/2006 12:45:59 PM ET 2006-11-28T17:45:59

The Iranian-backed group Hezbollah has been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr, The New York Times reported on Monday, quoting a senior U.S. intelligence official.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon, the unidentified official told the newspaper.

A small number of Hezbollah operatives had also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.

Iran has facilitated the link between Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq while Syrian officials have also cooperated, but there is debate whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria, the official told the Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The newspaper report came amid intense debate over whether the United States should enlist the help of Iran and Syria in stabilizing Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, directed by James Baker, a former Republican secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic lawmaker, is expected to call for direct talks with Tehran.

The account was consistent with a claim made in Iraq this summer by a mid-level Mahdi commander, who said his militia sent 300 fighters to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah in its war with Israel, the Times said.

“They are the best-trained fighters in the Mahdi Army,” the newspaper quoted him as saying, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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