Iraq has sent senior Shiite Muslim leaders to Tehran to discuss new evidence that Iranian security services are providing weapons and training to militiamen locked in a deadly showdown with U.S. and Iraqi forces, Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The visit follows some of the most heated U.S. accusations in months of Iranian meddling in Iraq, charges denied by Tehran.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, visiting London on Thursday to discuss strategy with British military and political officials, alleged that large amounts of Iranian-made weapons were found last month during a crackdown against Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi oil hub of Basra.
"[It's] very, very significant and they could have been the source of enormous loss had they not been picked up in these various operations down there," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told the BBC. "The number in the Baghdad area is even greater, so there is huge concern."
The discovery has placed Iraq's government in an uncomfortable position as it attempts to balance relations between two of its powerful allies, which are at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear program.
The last thing Iraqi officials want is for their country to become the stage for a proxy war. U.S. officials have indicated they are prepared to give the Iraqis a chance to resolve the matter through diplomacy.
Armed with the latest intelligence, a delegation from Iraq's governing Shiite alliance traveled to Iran on Wednesday to lay out its concerns to political, security and religious leaders and to discuss the way forward, said a close aide and two other politicians with ties to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
"The point is to press home the importance of Iran . . . cooperating with the Iraqi government and not dealing with any other illegal militias or factions outside the government," said senior advisor Haider Abadi, in some of the most pointed comments to date from a member of Maliki's inner circle. "We are looking for good, neighborly relations with Iran, but it cannot go on like this."
U.S. officials have been charging for months that Iran is arming, funding, training and directing breakaway factions of hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, groups they blame for some of the most lethal attacks against American troops in Iraq.
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they had shared new evidence of Iranian interference with Iraqi officials and expected that the delegation to Tehran would use that intelligence in its discussions.
"It's in Prime Minister Maliki's hands right now, the evidence as to whether or not he has been lied to, baldfaced lied to, by the Iranian government," said Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, head of military planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials have shared the evidence with the media, a long-standing pattern. But they say it includes caches of Iranian weapons, some with markings indicating they were manufactured in 2008.
Petraeus said the weapons included "well over 1,000" mortar and artillery rounds, "hundreds and hundreds" of rockets and "dozens" of armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles.
Iran denies it is helping Iraqi militants and has expressed support for the militia crackdown. An Iranian official confirmed Thursday that the Iraqi delegation had arrived.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran, in order to settle the disputes between the factions in Iraq, receives this delegation and wants to stop the violence in Iraq," Mohammed Ali Hosseini, spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, told The Times in a telephone interview.
Shiites dominate both countries, and Iran's Islamic government has ties with Shiite factions on both sides of the current fighting in Iraq. The crackdown on militias, which began in Basra on March 25, triggered a fierce backlash from fighters loyal to Sadr, who an aide said Thursday was also in Iran.
Salah Obeidi, Sadr's spokesman in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said the cleric would not meet with the delegation from Iraq this time.
Members of the Shiite alliance said the delegation was led by the deputy parliament speaker, Khalid Attiya. Also on the team are Tariq Abdullah, Maliki's office manager; Ali Adeeb, a senior member of the prime minister's Islamic Dawa Party; and Hadi Ameri, from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest party in Maliki's coalition.
The delegation planned to meet with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which U.S. officials accuse of providing direction and support to Iraqi militiamen. It also wants to make its case to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Abadi, Maliki's advisor, said, "There is a huge doubt in our mind as to whether the supreme leader is aware of the money and the equipment and the training that is coming into Iraq and the extent of it."
Times staff writers Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Peter Spiegel in Washington and Kim Murphy in London and special correspondents Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.