Iraqis: Hezbollah trained Shiites

Hezbollah instructors trained Shiite militiamen at remote camps in southern Iraq until three months ago when they slipped across the border to Iran – presumably to continue instruction on Iranian soil, according to two Shiite lawmakers and a top army officer.

The three Iraqis claim the Lebanese Shiites were also involved in planning some of the most brazen attacks against U.S.-led forces, including the January 2007 raid on a provincial government compound in Karbala in which five Americans died.

The allegations, made in separate interviews with The Associated Press, point not only to an Iranian hand in the Iraq war, but also to Hezbollah's willingness to expand beyond its Lebanese base and assume a broader role in the struggle against U.S. influence in the Middle East.

All this suggests that Shiite-dominated Iran is waging a proxy war against the U.S. to secure a dominant role in majority-Shiite Iraq, which has supplanted Lebanon as Tehran's top priority in the Middle East.

“The stakes are much higher in Iraq, where there is a Shiite majority, oil, the shrine cities and borders with Saudi Arabia,” said analyst Farid al-Khazen, a Christian Lebanese lawmaker whose party is allied with Hezbollah.

“The big story is Iraq, and the Americans unwittingly opened it up for the Iranians” by their invasion in 2003, al-Khazen said.

Iran, Hezbollah's mentor, denies giving any support to Shiite extremists in Iraq.

But the three Iraqis who spoke to the AP said the Iranians prefer to use Hezbollah instructors because as Arabs, they can communicate better with the Iraqi Shiites and maintain a lower profile than Farsi-speakers from Iran.

For Hezbollah, a high-risk role in Iraq could give the Lebanese movement leverage with the United States and broaden its appeal within the Arab world where anti-American sentiment remains strong.

Iraqi officials have said little about a Hezbollah role in this country. However, President Jalal Talabani told U.S.-funded Alhurra television this week that “there have been several occasions” when Hezbollah members or those who “claim to belong to Hezbollah” have been detained in Iraq.

He gave no further details.

But the two Iraqi lawmakers and the military officer said Hezbollah instructors work only with members of the Iraqi Shiite “special groups,” the U.S. military's name for splinter factions of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. believes elite Iranian forces support the special groups.

In Iran, training resumed in camps once used by Iraqi exiles who fought with Iranian forces during the 1980s war between the two countries, the lawmakers said.

Indications that Hezbollah was playing a role in Iraq first surfaced last July when the U.S. military announced the arrest of Ali Musa Daqduq, a Lebanese-born Hezbollah operative allegedly training Iraqi Shiite militiamen.