Is Iran Controlling Iraqi Militias?

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Iraqi militiamen march in a parade to mark the 2nd anniversary of fighting in Najaf between the militia and U.S military on August 5, 2006, in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.

Iraq's most powerful politician has dismissed claims by U.S. officials and generals that Iran is interfering in Baghdad's affairs. Abdul-Azziz al-Hakim has told TIME that despite repeated requests from him and other Iraqi politicians, American officials have failed to show any reliable evidence of Tehran's interference. "[The U.S.] has been making such claims for a long time," he said, "and for three years we've told them, 'Show us proof.' But they never have."

Hakim heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, the largest of Iraq's political parties. SCIRI has close ties to Tehran, and many of its leaders — including Hakim — spent many years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era.

Many Shi'ite politicians dismiss as scapegoating the statements by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and generals at the Pentagon that Iran is actively arming and training Sh'ite militias in Iraq. "They are looking for somebody to blame for the failure [of the U.S. military to halt the sectarian killings in Iraq] and it is easy to blame Iran," said Hadi al-Amiri, who heads the Iraqi parliament's security and defense committee, while also running the Badr Organization, a Shi'ite militia.

Even political observers not affiliated to the Shi'ite parties are likely to be surprised by Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero's claim, at a press conference Wednesday, that there was "irrefutable" evidence of Iranian collusion with Iraqi militias. That is the exact opposite of what U.S. military officials in Baghdad have been saying. Less than two weeks ago, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, told journalists that there "is nothing that we definitively have found to say that there are any Iranians operating within the country of Iraq." He added that although "some Shi'ite elements have been in Iran receiving training... the degree to which this is known and endorsed by the government of Iran is uncertain."

There is an ironic echo in Barbero's claim that Iran was helping the militias with technology to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs; last year, U.S. officials said Tehran was supplying IED know-how to Iraq's Sunni insurgents. Several Sunni insurgent leaders — whose hatred of Iran compares with their animosity toward the U.S. — have told TIME they have no need of such outside help since their ranks include many explosives experts from Saddam's military.

With the spiraling of sectarian violence in Iraq, each side has taken to accusing the other of getting outside help. Sunni leaders claim Shi'ite militias are trained by Iran, and Shi'ite leaders say Sunni terrorists are funded by Saudi Arabia and Syria. Although U.S. officials shy clear of fingering Riyadh, they have frequently accused Damascus of aiding and abetting the Sunni insurgency.

Renewed Tehran-bashing in Washington is unlikely to sit well with Iraqi Shi'ite politicians, who make up the dominant block of parliament. Like Hakim and al-Amiri, many leading figures in the Iraqi government are beholden to Iran for its support of the anti-Saddam movement. The Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari) also owes its survival during the Saddam years to Tehran. Antagonizing the Shi'ite block could complicate U.S. efforts to end the civil war and draw down American troops in Iraq.

Even Shi'ite leaders who didn't live in Iran have close ties to their co-sectarians and have condemned U.S. efforts to pressure Tehran into abandoning its nuclear program. The radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has warned that if the U.S. launches a military campaign against Iran, his militia, the Mahdi Army, will fight shoulder to shoulder with the Iranians.

Leaders like Hakim say that rather than blame Iran or the Shi'ite militias, the U.S. military — and Iraqi security forces — should be focusing its energies on defeating the mainly Sunni insurgent and terrorist groups. "The main cause of the violence in Iraq are the Saddamists and [jihadi terrorists]," Hakim said. "We should not be distracted from our main task, which is to destroy these forces. "