BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraqi and US military commanders on Sunday claimed a clear Iranian role in violence engulfing Baghdad's Sadr City, where Shiite militiamen have been battling security forces for the past month.
The claims come after the top US military leader, Admiral Michael Mullen, last week expressed concern at what he said was Iran's growing and lethal interference in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Iraqi army spokesman Major General Qasim Atta told a news conference in Baghdad that 712 rockets and mortars had been fired in Baghdad in recent weeks, and claimed most of them were Iranian-made.
"We have found many Iranian-made weapons -- Katyusha and Grad rockets, and smart roadside bombs and smart bombs. We have also seized some documents and identified some people," Atta said, without elaborating.
"In the past month 712 rockets and mortars have been fired. Most of these were Iranian-made," he said without explaining how the country of origin had been determined.
General Abud Qanbar Hashim, Iraqi commander of Baghdad Operations Command, last week said 82 people had been killed and 476 wounded in rocket and mortar fire in Baghdad since March 25, much of it coming from Sadr City.
The US military says its operations in Sadr City are aimed at those it has identified as being behind the rocket fire -- Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen known as "Special Groups."
US military spokesman Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll said there was little doubt that most of those firing rockets in Sadr City had been trained in Iran.
"Anyone carrying a weapon that is provided (by Iran) or... is using (weapons) which are Iranian-based tend to be those who are trained in Iran on those weapons," he told AFP.
"We know they are Special Groups when they run out to launch their rockets and mortars," Driscoll said, adding that these groups generally comprise members of the Mahdi Army militia of hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who are ignoring his orders to lay down their arms.
"The Iranians continue to train Iraqis and finance their networks and over time that is going to build," Driscoll told reporters.
"It's going to build more networks. It's going to build more Special Group criminals. It's going to build more capabilities.
"So over time if they continue to do this activity it will create a bigger influence and that's going to lead to more interference in the internal affairs of Iraq."
The violence in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's east Baghdad bastion, has killed more than 400 people in the past month.
The military assaults are part of a wider crackdown on militias throughout the country ordered by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which began in Basra on March 25, sparking a massive outbreak of fighting in the port city which killed 700 people.
Mullen, speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, said the Basra operations revealed "just how much and just how far" Iran has gone to foment instability.
"I'm extremely concerned about what I believe is an increasingly lethal and malign influence by that government, and the Quds Force in particular, in Iraq and throughout the Middle East," said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some Iranian-made weapons found during the Basra operation had date stamps on them that were "very recent," he said.
He said the leader of a covert paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, known as the Quds Force, was involved in the Basra violence. But Mullen said he had seen no "smoking gun" proof that Iran's leadership was aware of it.
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