Hizbollah training us: Mahdi Army

As US draws up plans to pull out of Iraq by 2012, militants claim they went to Lebanon via Syria and learned how to ambush coalition troops

** FILE ** In this Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005 file photo, members of the Mahdi army parade in the southern town of Basra, Iraq in commemoration of the assassination by suspected Saddam agents in 1999 of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of firebrand anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a series of interviews with The Associated Press since April, Abu Ali, who gave his nickname because of fears for his family's safety, gave insights into the life of a senior Mahdi Army commander, and now at 37 and eager to get on with his life, Abu Ali is headed back to the holy city of Najaf to resume his clerical studies. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
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Baghdad // Fighters from Iraq's Mahdi Army have detailed how they are receiving training from Lebanese Hizbollah in advanced insurgency tactics to use against US troops, even as Washington continues to negotiate a pact that may see most American soldiers leave Iraq by 2012. At least 100 militants from the Mahdi Army, a powerful militia that opposes the American presence in Iraq, went to Lebanon earlier this summer to receive the training, according to two fighters who claim to have taken part. In a series of interviews, they described being instructed in leadership methods and religious indoctrination techniques, as well as how best to ambush US troops and evade American air strikes. Their claims have not been independently verified and Hizbollah denies any such link with the Iraqi group. US intelligence officials, however, say there are strong ties between the Lebanese and Iraqi militants and last week accused Hizbollah fighters of training Iraqis in camps inside Iran. "I was with 15 others from the Mahdi Army for training in Lebanon," said Sayed Ali, a mid-level militia commander from Baghdad's Fadeliyeh neighbourhood. He spoke on condition his full name not be published. "We were all of about the same rank and mainly our training was in theories about leadership, discipline and religion." A 48-year-old veteran who has fought the Americans in Najaf and Baghdad, Sayed Ali said religious instruction was the central focus. "We want to be a just and ideological army to fight the occupiers, like Hizbollah, and we want to be successful like Hizbollah. That can only be done with a strong understanding of Islam and a deep faith in God. "If you have faith you can lead men properly and persuade them to fight with you against the occupiers." Hizbollah, an Islamic military-political movement dominated by Lebanese Shiites, earned a reputation as one of the most effective forces in the Arab world after its highly-trained, highly-disciplined guerrillas fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon during the summer of 2006. Where conventional Arab armies had previously been crushed, Hizbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, held its own, humiliating Israel in the process. Wearing a black turban of the kind common among Shia who trace their ancestry back to the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, Sayed Ali refused to disclose the location of either the theoretical or practical training, saying only that the religious instruction was "in a mosque". However, he briefly outlined the type of tactical training they had been given. "We were told how to do the best kinds of ambushes that will only hit the Americans and not any civilians nearby," he said. "The important thing is to carry out the attack quickly, before the Americans can use their aircraft." He also said there had been much discussion about American rules of engagement, or the circumstances under which US forces are allowed to open fire. "If you know the rules your enemy fights under, you can defeat him," he said. The draft deal finalised by US and Iraqi negotiators sets a course for American combat troops to pull out of major Iraqi cities by next June, with a broader exit two years later. The dates could be adjusted if security and political progress in Iraq deteriorate, officials have said. Sayed Ali said he was "one of at least a hundred" fighters who travelled to Lebanon via Syria in May. The passage was organised by Hizbollah, he said. He returned to Iraq almost two months later. During that period the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al Sadr, came under growing pressure from the Iraqi government and the US military. Sayed Ali said he had not been given orders to attack US forces since returning to Iraq. However, he insisted the Mahdi Army's rules of engagement prohibited sectarian war, or strikes on Iraqi security services. "We are not here to fight our brother Sunnis and we have no desire to fight the Iraqi forces," he said. "We have been trained to fight professionally against the American occupation forces and this is our legitimate right." Another militia member also claimed to have gone to Lebanon via Syria for training. "I am a sniper and my training was about that," he said. He gave his name as Nasser Halaleh - the same as that of a man believed to have killed numerous American soldiers and even his own mother, after fearing she would inform on him to the US authorities. "We had practical training about being snipers but there was lots of religious education and reading of the Quran," he said. "We had to memorise parts of the Quran so that we can use our speech to show people the danger America and Israel bring to us." Mr Halaleh, wearing a traditional black dishdasha robe and white headscarf, said he expected to return to Lebanon for further tutoring. "We cannot tell everything and most things about this should stay private," he said. "But many sons of the Mahdi Army are outside of Iraq at the moment, either for training or to avoid being captured. "They will return in time and we will have new tactics and new orders from Sayed Muqtada al Sadr." The Mahdi Army is apparently in the process of being transformed along the same lines as Hizbollah, with a military wing running in parallel with a civilian side that provides health care, education and financial aid to the poor. Earlier this year, Sadr announced the disbanding of the main Mahdi Army militia, thought to number more than 100,000, in favour of a much smaller and secret armed group. The bulk of the older armed faction were told to put down their weapons and concentrate on social projects that would win support from the general public. Lt Gen Raymond Odierno, who will take over command of US troops in Iraq next month, said the Sadrists' plans posed a threat to Iraq. "We do not want a Hizbollah model inside of Iraq," he told The New York Times. "We do not want an organisation that is an alternative to the government." * The National