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Iraqi Shiite politician defends Iran

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s most influential Shiite politician said Sunday that the U.S. had not backed up claims that Iran is fueling violence here, underscoring a wide gap on the issue between Washington and the Shiite-led Baghdad government.

A draft bill to ease curbs on ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists in government services also drew sharp criticism from Shiite lawmakers, opening old wounds at a time when the United States is pressing the Iraqis for compromise for the sake of national unity.

The Americans have long accused the Iranians of arming and training Shiite militias, including some linked to the U.S.-backed government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S. officials have also alleged that Iran has provided weapons used to kill Americans – a charge the Iranians vehemently deny.

“These are only accusations raised by the multinational forces and I think these accusations need more proof,” Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, told reporters.

Al-Hakim, who has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer in Iran, said the Iranians have insisted in meetings with Iraqi officials that “their true will is to support the Iraqi government” and to promote stability.

“They have a long history of standing by the Iraqi people and that is their official stance that is presented to the press without any hesitation,” he said.

Al-Hakim spent years in exile in Iran during Saddam’s regime and is considered closer to the Iranians than any of the major Iraqi Shiite leaders. His party has also closely cooperated with American authorities since the 2003 collapse of Saddam’s regime, and he has met with President Bush in the Oval Office.

His comments were made ahead of a new round of talks between U.S. and Iranian officials here over ways to promote stability in Iraq and exploit the sharp downturn in violence since the U.S. sent 30,000 reinforcements early this year.

No date for the next U.S.-Iranian talks has been announced. The Americans are expected to raise concerns about Iranian influence among Shiite armed groups, although U.S. officials have said they believe the flow of Iranian arms has been curtailed.

This month, the U.S. military released nine Iranians who had been held in Iraq for months.