EAST OF BAQUBA, Iraq, Oct 7 (Reuters) The US military commander in Iraq stepped up accusations over the weekend that Iran was stoking violence in Iraq and said Tehran's ambassador to Baghdad was a member of the Revolutionary Guards Qods force.
Washington accuses the force, the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, of inciting bloodshed in Iraq and of training and equipping militias who have attacked US troops.
General David Petraeus, speaking at a US military base about 30 km (20 miles) from the Iranian border yesterday, said Iran was giving advanced weaponry to militias in Iraq.
''They are responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed US soldiers,'' Petraeus told a small group of reporters when asked if the Iranian government was responsible for killing U.S. troops.
''There is no question about the connection between Iran and these components, (the) attacks that have killed our soldiers.'' Petraeus did not say how he knew Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, was a member of the Qods force.
''The ambassador is a Qods force member,'' said Petraeus, before appearing to suggest that Kazemi-Qomi was not under the US military spotlight because he was a diplomat.
''Now he has diplomatic immunity and therefore he is obviously not subject (to scrutiny). He is acting as a diplomat.'' The Iranian embassy in Baghdad had no immediate comment.
Kazemi-Qomi has twice met US ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad this year for landmark talks on ways to stabilise Iraq. The discussions have made little headway, with both sides accusing each other over the violence in the country.
The Qods force is a special unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. There are varying estimates of its strength but it is in charge of Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
Iran's military acknowledges the existence of the Qods force, although it tends not to give details of its role.
Tehran routinely denies US accusations about its role in Iraq's violence, as well as Western allegations its nuclear programme is aimed at developing atomic weapons.
President George W Bush has said he is committed to diplomacy to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme but he has not ruled out taking military action.
''MALIGN, LETHAL INVOLVEMENT'' But Petraeus said he had no doubts about the Qods force.
''There should be no question about the malign, lethal involvement and activities of the Qods force in this country,'' he said.
Petraeus listed the type of weapons he said Iran was supplying to militias in Iraq.
He said this comprised advanced rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired ''Stinger-like'' air defence missiles and 240mm rockets. This was in addition to components used to make explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a particularly deadly roadside bomb that has killed hundreds of US troops in Iraq.
Petraeus also suggested there was an Iranian link in the assassination of two provincial governors in southern Iraq in August. Both were killed by roadside bombs.
''They are implicated in the assassination of some governors in the southern provinces,'' said Petraeus.
Asked to be more specific, he said one case ''was clearly an explosively formed projectile''.
''They only come from Iran and they are only used by militias so it's a sort of a signature trademark of militia extremists.
The other case the suspicion is the same, we just don't have the same quality of forensics.'' Asked if there was intelligence directly linking Iran to the two bomb attacks, he said: ''I would not comment on this.'' Reuters JK GC1500