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Iraqi team seeks halt to suspected Iranian aid to militias
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    BAGHDAD — Iraqi envoys stepped up pressure on Iran during a mission Thursday that seeks to bolster claims that Tehran is arming and training Shiite militias in Iraq and bring the suspected aid to a halt.
    The visit to Iran by the five-member delegation opened a new political front in the expanding Shiite-on-Shiite showdown between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and rival Shiite factions — including some with suspected Iranian backing.
    It also followed a wave of sharp rhetoric from U.S. officials that included CIA Director Michael Hayden accusing Iran’s leadership of crafting policies ‘‘to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq.’’
    Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the delegation’s visit a ‘‘very important step’’ for Iraq’s government to confront high-level authorities in Iran, the established center of Shiite political power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
    ‘‘For a Shiite prime minister to send a delegation to Iran presumably to confront the Iranians with that kind of a choice, I think, is a healthy development,’’ Gates said at Fort Bliss, Texas.
    ‘‘I don’t know how you evaluate the success or failure of a mission like that except over time and looking back and seeing if the supply of weapons and training and so on has diminished,’’ he added.
    The Iraqi delegation — five senior Shiite politicians — held one of its first meetings with the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that has been accused of training and funneling weapons to Shiite extremists.
    The delegation showed the commander, Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, documents and other material they say supported the allegations, according to a member of the delegation who spoke by telephone from Iran. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
    The lawmaker did not share further information, but said a second meeting with Soleimani was expected Friday.
    The Quds Force is believed to have operated abroad, helping to create the militant Hezbollah in the early 1980s in Lebanon and arm Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan wars.
    Iran has denied it offers any aid to Shiite militias in Iraq.
    But the Bush administration has ramped up its anti-Iran comments as American troops have faced near daily clashes with Shiite militiamen since Iraq’s government launched a crackdown in late March.
    The combat helped push the U.S. military’s death toll in Iraq to at least 51 in April, the highest monthly toll since 65 were killed in September.
    At Kansas State University, Hayden responded to a question Wednesday by claiming the ‘‘highest level’’ of Iran’s government backs policies to assist the ‘‘killing of Americans’’ in Iraq.
    Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, director of strategy, plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said that Iraq’s prime minister had been given ‘‘evidence’’ about Iranian moves. Other Pentagon officials said it shows continuing Iranian help to Shiite militias inside Iraq.
    Al-Maliki’s attempt to cripple Shiite militias has put him squarely at odds with the powerful Mahdi Army led anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is believed to be under Iranian protection in the Shiite seminary city of Qom south of Tehran.
    Al-Sadr has urged for an end to battles against Iraqi security forces, but has threatened an ‘‘open war’’ on American troops. After the call last week, his backers have escalated attacks in Sadr City, their main stronghold in Baghdad and the key battleground of the current clashes.
    The Iraqi delegation has no plans to meet al-Sadr, said an Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
    Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, meanwhile, is struggling to maintain a balance between its U.S. backers and neighboring Iran, which has close ties to Iraq’s leadership.
    The five politicians left for Tehran on Wednesday carrying documents and other material they claim indicate that the Quds Force is supplying weapons and training fighters, the Iraqi government officials said.
    The delegation also was expected to meet with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stress that the escalating clashes were threatening political gains by Shiites, officials said.
    U.S. military officials have said the documents include details of weapons that have date stamps showing they were produced in Iran this year — including mortars, rockets and armor-piercing roadside bombs.
    Reda Jawad Taqi, a Shiite lawmaker and a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said the purpose of the trip was ‘‘to review the current situation in Iraq with Iranian officials, to clarify the situation with them and to enhance the mutual relationship between the two countries.’’
    Al-Sadr’s spokesman in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf also said that the cleric will not meet the Iraqi delegation.
    Sheik Salah al-Obeidi claimed that the Iraqi delegation that traveled to Tehran was under the influence of Iran and does not represent Iraq’s national interests.
    Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Robert Burns in Washington and Lolita Baldor in Fort Bliss, Texas, contributed to this report.

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