NEW YORK (Reuters) – Iran is pressing Shi’ite militias to step up attacks against the U.S.-led forces in Iraq in retaliation for the Israeli assault on Lebanon, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq told The New York Times in an interview.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also told the Times in Baghdad on Friday that Iran may foment even more violence as it faces off with the United States and United Nations over its nuclear program in the coming weeks. The newspaper reported on the interview in Saturday editions.
The remarks echoed those Khalilzad made to reporters on Tuesday in Tikrit, where he raised concern that the war in Lebanon could threaten U.S. interests in Iraq.
“The region is very much interconnected. What happened in Lebanon affects things here,” he told reporters in Tikrit during a ceremony with the 4th Iraqi Army Division.
“Iran … has some forces here. There is the possibility that they might encourage those forces to create increased instability here,” he said.
Khalilzad told the Times Iranian incitement had led to a surge in mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone, now the seat of the Iraqi government and the American Embassy.
Western security advisers said on Friday there had been a recent spate of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone, the Times said, but it was unclear whether anyone was wounded or killed and a spokesman for the American military, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, declined to provide details.
According to the ambassador, the Shi’ite guerillas behind the recent attacks are members of splinter groups of the Mehdi Army, a militia created by the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Those groups are tied to Iran as well as Hizbollah, he told the Times.
Khalilzad said that while there was no proof Iran was behind any particular militia operations in Iraq, there was evidence Iran is pushing for more attacks, although he offered no specifics, the Times said.
“Iran is seeking to … encourage more pressure on the coalition from the forces that they are allied with here, and the same is maybe true of Hizbollah,” he was quoted as saying.
Khalilzad insisted, however, that the most powerful Shi’ite leaders in Iraq had not yet pushed for more violence against U.S. troops, despite Iran’s desire for them to do so.
“Generally the Shia leadership here have behaved more as Iraqi patriots and have not reacted in the way that perhaps the Iranians and Hizbollah might want them to,” Khalilzad said.
In the interview, Khalilzad said Iran could stoke more violence among Shi’ite militias as the end of the month approaches. A U.N. Security Council resolution gives Iran until August 31 to suspend its uranium enrichment activities or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.
“The concern that we have is that Iran and Hizbollah would use those contacts that they have with groups and … use those to cause more difficulties or cause difficulties for the coalition,” he told the newspaper.