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(photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah denied on Tuesday that it was training fighters from the Mahdi Army, an Iraqi Shi'ite militia blamed in sectarian killings in the war-torn country.
A senior American intelligence official said Monday that Hizbullah had trained members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shi'ite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr, The New York Times reported.
Hussein Rahhal, Hizbullah's media chief, called the report baseless, saying it was part of a US intelligence campaign circulated by the American media to vilify the guerrilla group.
"These accusations are hollow and worthless. They reflect the American occupation's impasse in Iraq, where it is trying to blame others for its defeat," Rahhal told The Associated Press.
The US intelligence official, according to the Times, said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite militias had been trained by Hizbullah in Lebanon. A small number of Hizbullah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.
Iran has facilitated the link between Hizbullah and the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria.
The intelligence official spoke on condition of anonymity under rules set by his agency, and discussed Iran's role in response to questions from a reporter.
The new American account, according to the Times, is consistent with a claim made in Iraq this summer by a mid-level Mahdi commander, who said his militia had sent 300 fighters to Lebanon, ostensibly to fight alongside Hizbullah against Israel. "They are the best-trained fighters in the Mahdi Army," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the interview on Monday, the senior intelligence official was asked for further details about the purported Iranian role.
"They have been a link to Lebanese Hizbullah and have helped facilitate Hizbullah training inside of Iraq, but more importantly, Jaish al-Mahdi members going to Lebanon," the official said, describing Iran's role and using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army.
The official said the Hizbullah training had been conducted with the knowledge of al-Sadr, the most influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq.