US commander, Iran still supporting Iraqi militias

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WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) Shi'ite militias in volatile parts of Baghdad continue to receive support from Iran, a US commander said today, in contrast to US officials who noted positive developments in Iran's role inside Iraq.

Army Col. Don Farris, commander of US troops in the Sadr City and Adamiya areas of Baghdad, said the number of attacks in his sector had dropped 75 per cent since May.

But there has been no decline in the operations of Shi'ite extremist groups or the support they receive from Iran in weapons, funding or training, he said.

''While the violence is down, I remain very concerned in our sector about these special groups,'' Farris said of the Shi'ite fighters who operate separately from Moqtada al Sadr's Mehdi Army.

''They're very lethal, they're organized, they're sophisticated and I have not seen that their operations have declined or diminished in any way, shape or form here in the last several months,'' he said.

Washington accuses Tehran of funding, training and arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq. The military often displays weapons, including rockets and roadside bombs, it says have been supplied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Qods Force.

Tehran denies the charge and blames the violence in Iraq on the US-led invasion in 2003.

But in recent weeks, US officials in Iraq appeared to soften their tone toward Tehran. Ambassador Ryan Crocker noted positive developments in Iran's involvement in Iraq, including a cease-fire ordered in August by Sadr, the anti-American cleric who heads the Mehdi Army militia accused of links to Iran.

Farris said the Mehdi Army cease-fire was still in effect but that other Shi'ite militias, which he called ''special groups,'' had kept up their operations.

He said US forces had captured two Iraqis in the past six weeks who admitted to receiving training in Iran and acting as agents for a group in Iran. Farris would not say who the Iraqis worked for.

He also said the number of the most lethal roadside bombs -- the explosively formed penetrators that the US military ties to Iran -- used or found in his sector had climbed to nine in October from seven in May.

''We have not seen any slowing down or any indicators that these special groups are going to curtail their activities or quit receiving this support that's coming from outside the country,'' he said.

Reuters AK VP0026

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