Iran called off further Iraq security talks with Washington until U.S. forces stop their crackdown on Shiite militias, but the U.S. brought more air power into the fight Monday and escalated its accusations of Iranian backing for extremists.
The latest flare-up has put Iraq's government in a bind as it seeks to stamp out armed Shiite gangs but worries about angering Shiite heavyweight Iran, which has close ties to the core of Iraq's political leadership.
Washington has long accused Iran of arming and training some Shiite militia factions. The accusations were sharpened Monday as the military said detainees described being trained at bases outside Tehran by militants from Hezbollah, an Iranian-aided faction based in Lebanon.
Iraq's Shiite-led government said battles against militias would continue even if Iran pulled out of the security talks. Three rounds have been held at the ambassador level since May and marked rare direct diplomatic contact between the two nations, which have had no formal relations since shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Concerns about Sunni extremists
There are also worries that Sunni extremists are regrouping. Attacks blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq have claimed dozens of lives in recent days, including an attack Monday that killed at least 10 Iraqi soldiers and wounded 13 at a checkpoint in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said talks could not be held under current conditions.
"What we are witnessing is open and extensive bombing of the Iraqi nation, while the main goal of talks with the American side would have been security and peace in Iraq," Hosseini said. "It is a matter of doubt that the U.S. is pursuing a solution for the crisis, which was caused by them."
In Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite slum where 2.5 million people live, U.S. and Iraqi force have been under sustained attacks by militias including members of the powerful Mahdi Army led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra since late March when Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launched an offensive against Shiite militias and so-called "special groups" with suspected ties to Iran.
On Monday, the U.S. Air Force unleashed one of its most potent weapons, the AC-130 gunship, against Shiite extremists in Baghdad. The U.S. military said it killed at least nine militants in clashes since Sunday.
The turboprop AC-130 — a variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane — can be outfitted with Gatling guns and howtizers.
Many of the recent attacks against U.S. forces have been blamed on an armor-piercing bomb — known as an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP — which the Pentagon claims is partially manufactured in Iran. Iraq has said it will set up a committee to investigate U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement, but has sought to keep a balance between the two countries.
Delegation sent to Iran
A five-member Iraqi delegation went to Tehran last week to discuss the U.S. allegations. Their meetings included Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force wing of the Revolutionary Guard.
Details of the talks have not been released, but Hosseini said in Iran that "Tehran has always said that it supports the Iraqi government and legal action against illegal armed groups who commit crimes there."
In Baghdad, the U.S. military said Iraqi Shiite extremists are being trained by members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah at camps near Tehran operated by the Quds Force. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
The Quds Force is believed to operate overseas, helping to create the militant Shiite Hezbollah in 1982 in Lebanon and to arm Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars.
"We have multiple detainees who state Lebanese Hezbollah are providing training to Iraqis in Iranian (Quds Force) training camps near Tehran," Air Force Col. Donald Bacon, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, told The Associated Press.
The first reports of Hezbollah training emerged in March 2007, when U.S. forces captured Qais Khazali, a senior Iraqi Shiite militia leader, and Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah commander.
Lebanese trainers would speak Arabic and be able to better communicate with their fellow Arabs from Iraq. Most Iranians speak Farsi and are Persian.
"Ali Mussa Daqduq confirmed Lebanese Hezbollah were providing training to Iraqi `special group' members in Iran and that his role was to assess the quality of training and make recommendations on how the training could be improved. In this role, he traveled to Iraq on four occasions and was captured on his fourth trip," Bacon told the AP in an e-mail.
Since then, Bacon said "we have captured other Iraqis who have discussed their training in Iran and who state many of their instructors were Lebanese Hezbollah."