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Iraq PM sends team to Iran to discuss militias

Iraq's prime minister has sent a delegation to Tehran to tell Iranian officials to stop backing Shiite militias, underscoring Baghdad's unease over the influence of its powerful neighbor.
/ Source: Reuters

Iraq's prime minister has sent a delegation to Tehran to tell Iranian officials to stop backing Shiite militias, Iraqi officials said on Thursday, underscoring Baghdad's unease over the influence of its powerful neighbor.

The delegation from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) left for Tehran on Wednesday in the wake of further accusations from U.S. officials that newly made Iranian weapons have been found in Iraq.

"The UIA has decided to send a delegation to press the Iranian government to stop financing and supporting the armed groups," said Sami al-Askari, a senior lawmaker in the Shiite alliance and a close confidant of al-Maliki.

Washington accuses Iran of arming, training and funding rogue elements of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Iran denies the charges and blames the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 for the violence in Iraq.

U.S. officials have stepped up their rhetoric against Iran since al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra in late March.

That fighting triggered a month of clashes in Baghdad, during which militiamen fired more than 700 rockets and mortars at targets in the capital. Many of those weapons were Iranian made, U.S. military officials have said.

Questions for Iran
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the delegation had taken questions to Tehran that needed answering.

Asked if the team, which is led by the deputy parliament speaker, would raise the issue of arming militias, al-Dabbagh said:

"They will discuss all issues that have been raised ... We expect and want the intervention of Iran to be through the elected government and not through a third party."

He did not elaborate nor say whom the delegation would meet.

Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, another UIA member of parliament, said the delegation was sent after the "serious deterioration that has recently taken place in security in Iraq".

American officials say al-Sadr himself is living in the holy Iranian city of Qom. Al-Sagheer denied reports the delegation would meet the cleric. Al-Sadr's spokesman denied the cleric was in Iran.

Claims of evidence
U.S. military officials say they have collected proof of Iranian weapons that have arrived recently in Iraq, but were holding off making a public display of their evidence so that Iraqis could make their own case to Iran first.

"The Iraqis wish to first show what they have to the Iranian government before they show the world," an official travelling with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.

"First and foremost, it's an attempt to say: 'Hey, listen: we know what you are up to. This is not helpful. Cut it out!'"

Major-General Qassim Moussawi, Iraqi spokesman for security in Baghdad, said this week that Iraq had seized Iranian-made missiles and heavy weapons in the past month.

Al-Maliki is having to tread a fine line between Tehran and Washington -- two bitter foes that are also at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear program.

But al-Maliki has also sought to show his independence.

'Not Iran's man in Iraq'
At a news conference on Wednesday, al-Maliki said: "I am not Iran's man in Iraq." And he launched his military offensive in Basra without giving the U.S. military much notice.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih this week described Baghdad's ties with Tehran as among the most complex it had.

"We cannot afford to have a precarious relationship that could degenerate and go back to a state of conflict that we have had in a previous era," Salih told Reuters.

"The time has come for this relationship to be put on a real sound footing, state to state."

Iran, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Ties have improved since Sunni Arab strongman Saddam Hussein was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion and a Shiite Islamist-led government came to power in Baghdad.

In fresh violence, U.S. forces said they killed 18 fighters in clashes beginning on Wednesday afternoon and running through the night in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of cleric al-Sadr.