BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sent a delegation to tell Iran to stop backing Shi’ite militias, officials said on Thursday, underscoring Iraq’s unease over the influence of its powerful neighbour.
The delegation from Maliki’s ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) left for Tehran on Wednesday amid further accusations from U.S. military officials that large amounts of Iranian weapons have been found in Iraq.
“The UIA has decided to send a delegation to press the Iranian government to stop financing and supporting the armed groups,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior legislator in the Shi’ite party and a close confidante of Maliki.
In London, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said “very, very significant” amounts of Iranian weapons had been found since Maliki launched an offensive against militias in late March.
Petraeus told the BBC after meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown this included more than 1,000 mortar and artillery rounds, hundreds of rockets and dozens of armour-piercing bombs. The number found in Baghdad was even greater, said Petraeus.
Washington accuses Shi’ite Iran of arming, training and funding rogue elements of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran denies the charges. “It’s a very important step (to send the delegation),” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Texas. “I think that the Iranians do care about what the shape of their future relationship with Iraq will be …. Do they want to work with the government of Iraq or are they going to subvert the government of Iraq?” said Gates.
Two suicide bombers killed 30 people and wounded 65 when they detonated explosive vests in a busy market in a town northeast of Baghdad, police said.
The bombings occurred in an area where Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants, blamed for most suicide bombings in Iraq, have sought to regroup.
Maliki’s crackdown has triggered more than a month of clashes in Baghdad, during which militiamen have fired more than 700 rockets and mortars at targets in the capital. Many of those weapons were Iranian made, U.S. military officials have said.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the delegation had taken questions to Tehran that needed answering.
Asked if the team, led by the deputy parliament speaker, would raise the issue of arming militias, Dabbagh said: “They will discuss all issues that have been raised … We expect and want the intervention of Iran to be through the elected government and not through a third party.” He did not elaborate nor say who the delegation would meet.
U.S. officials say Sadr is living in the holy Iranian city of Qom, but Shi’ite officials denied reports the delegation would meet him. Sadr’s spokesman denied the cleric was in Iran.
U.S. military officials had planned to put on display some of the recently captured Iranian weapons but decided to let the Iraqis make their own case to Iran first.
Maliki, a Shi’ite himself, is having to tread a fine line between Tehran and Washington — two bitter foes that are also at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear programme. But Maliki has also sought to show his independence.
At a news conference on Wednesday, he said: “I am not Iran’s man in Iraq.” And he launched his offensive in the southern city of Basra without giving the U.S. military much notice.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih this week described Baghdad’s ties with Tehran as among the most complex it had. “We cannot afford to have a precarious relationship that could degenerate and go back to a state of conflict that we have had in a previous era,” Salih told Reuters. “The time has come for this relationship to be put on a real sound footing, state to state.”
Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed. Ties have improved since Sunni Arab strongman Saddam Hussein was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion and a Shi’ite-led government came to power in Baghdad.
U.S. forces said they killed 18 fighters in clashes beginning on Wednesday afternoon and running through the night in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Sadr. Police said two women and two children had been killed.