Signs of Iran's Hand in Iraq

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Hassan Ali

Members of the Mahdi Army stand guard during a parade in Najaf.

One of the armor-piercing roadside bombs in Iraq has a nickname among the militants who place the device. They call it the Najadia, a short variation on the long name of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "My group and I believe honestly in fighting the Americans — and getting financial benefit out of it," says Hussein Ali, an Iraqi Shi'ite guerrilla who recounted a journey to Iran for training in explosives in an interview with TIME. "We became very professional in planting and using the mine called BMZ2, which is a Russian mine modified in Iran for use against the American armor."

Despite a drop in violence across Iraq, U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington have kept up accusations against Iran, saying Tehran is involved in nothing less than training and funding a shadow army of Shi'ite militants set against U.S. forces in Iraq. In the face of these U.S. assertions, the Iraqi government publicly says it has no evidence of an Iranian training program for Iraqi militants. "We don't have the proof that the American have," says Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "Normally the intelligence information the Americans have is not allowed to circulate." The issue was also not discussed, al-Dabbagh says, in official talks during Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Baghdad, where the Iranian leader enjoyed a warm reception that reflected deepening ties between Iran and Iraq. Iran has offered unflinching denials of subversive and anti-U.S. activity in Iraq.

For months, a range of U.S. officials in Baghdad have repeatedly aired allegations against Iran in public while offering almost no convincing proof, arguing that doing so would reveal classified information. Military officials in Iraq have told TIME that militia fighters in U.S. custody have admitted to training in Iran during interrogations but refuse to give further details. However, recent interviews by TIME with Iraqi militants who recounted visits to Iran for training largely (though not perfectly) fit patterns described by American officials in Baghdad and Washington regarding Tehran's role.

According to U.S. claims, Iraqi recruits from the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and other militias have traveled in groups numbering between 20 and 60 to Iran in a training program organized by the Quds Force that dates back to 2004. Handlers from the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary wing of the Iranian army, allegedly transport recruits to training camps near Tehran.

Ali, whose name is an alias, told TIME that there were indeed cells of fighters drawn from the ranks of the Mahdi Army who are now operating essentially at the behest of handlers and financiers with links to Iranian intelligence services. "They are gangs working under the name of Mahdi Army," says Ali, who joined the Mahdi Army in 2004. "The real Mahdi Army has nothing to do with them."

U.S. military officials view such cells as rogue elements of the Mahdi Army, making them viable targets of attack despite the prevailing cease-fire declared by Sadr. But the lines between Sadr's militiamen and Iranian-backed operatives who emerge from those ranks are blurry at best in the murky world of Iraq's guerrilla movement. Ali, himself a mainline Mahdi member, says he was taken to Iran for training and, in fact, continues to receive financial support from operatives linked to Iranian intelligence. During his interview with TIME, he did not discuss whether his Mahdi Army superiors knew any of this.

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