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U.S. accuses Iran of training Hezbollah fighters for Iraq

BAGHDAD – Iran is arming, training and funding members of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah in Iraq and using it as a “proxy” to wage war against American forces, a senior U.S. military spokesman said Monday.

Hezbollah, or Party of God, emerged in Lebanon in 1982 and receives funding and arms from Iran. It has a history of kidnapping and killing in its long-standing conflict with Israel, and provoked last summer’s Israeli intervention in Lebanon.

The news briefing by Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner marked the first time that a top U.S. military official had directly linked the radical Islamic group to violence in Iraq.

Citing documents and confessions from captured militants, including a Lebanese operative who has worked with Hezbollah for more than two decades, Bergner also said that the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, had helped plan a Jan. 20 raid on a government compound in Karbala in which five U.S. soldiers had been killed.

Bergner didn’t say whether Iranian Quds units were operating in Iraq, and stopped short of saying that Iran itself is waging war against the United States. He said Iran’s role in fomenting violence in Iraq reached to Tehran’s highest levels of government.

An Iranian-fueled Hezbollah paramilitary presence in Shiite-dominated Iraq would further complicate American efforts to help reconcile the deep religious divide between Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims, who lost power after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Bergner produced documents and names of 21 Iranian-backed militants who had been captured or killed while operating throughout Iraq, three of whom died in clashes with U.S. forces.

U.S. officials previously have blamed Iran for arming Shiite militias in Iraq.

Iranian government officials have denied that they’re arming groups in Iraq.

Bergner said Quds supplied “special groups” of Shiite militants in Iraq with weapons and up to $3 million a month. “Without this support,” Bergner said, “these special groups would be hard-pressed to conduct their operations in Iraq.”

It’s unclear under what conditions the captured men confessed, and there was no way to verify the authenticity of the documents independently.