By Claudia Parsons
UNITED NATIONS, April 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations blamed Iran on Monday for fueling recent clashes in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and in Baghdad, saying Tehran was training and supplying weapons to militias.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on followers of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Basra last month, triggering fighting which spread through the south and Baghdad.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Security Council Iranian-backed groups had launched numerous attacks in recent months on civilians and Iraqi and U.S.-led foreign forces.
"The recent clashes between criminal militia elements and Iraqi government forces in Basra and Baghdad have highlighted Iran’s destabilizing influence and actions," he said.
Iran denies supplying weapons to Iraqi groups.
Khalilzad also blamed Syria for allowing foreign fighters to come through its territory into Iraq. "Iran and Syria must stop the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq, and their malign interference in Iraq," he said.
Iraqi Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati said the recent military operations showed the government’s determination to take on "militias and outlaws" regardless of their affiliation.
Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government has long been accused of not doing enough to take on to Shi’ite militias.
The recent violence pitted government forces against followers of Sadr, who has veered apparently unpredictably between open confrontation and peaceful politics in the five years since the U.S. invasion.
Sadr has ordered his followers to observe a truce, but violence continued on Monday as militants fired a barrage of rockets at the fortified international Green Zone and fought battles with U.S. forces in northeast Baghdad.
SPIKE IN VIOLENCE
Several ambassadors at the Security Council expressed concern about the recent increase in violence but Khalilzad said despite the fighting in Basra and Baghdad, violence nationwide was still significantly lower than in late summer 2007.
Asked about Iranian involvement, Bayati told reporters he did not want to pick out any countries by name, but he added: "We know that some neighboring countries are helping militias, helping armed groups, and the Iraqi government is trying to stop any interference into internal affairs."
Under-Secretary General Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council there had been some political progress in recent months, such as passage of a law to replace the previous de-Baathification policies, the 2008 budget and an amnesty.
He said such political progress and some security improvement in late 2007 provided a window of opportunity.
"It is imperative that Iraqi leaders maintain this positive momentum and take further steps to resolve other fundamental issues that continue to divide Iraqis such as the sharing of natural resources and an agreement on the federal structure of the Iraqi state," Pascoe said.
Bayati said the amnesty law had provided "new impetus to the political process," and said more than 28,000 detainees had been released since the law came into force in February out of 37,000 who were included in the law.
It was the first time such a high number of releases had been cited by Iraq, and officials in Baghdad were not immediately able to say exactly when or where the detainees in question had been released.
(Editing by David Wiessler)