Iran backs Mahdi Army splinter faction?
Moktada al-Sadr's Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army, is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the militant cleric, Iraqi and US officials say. Two senior Mahdi Army commanders also told the AP that hundreds of breakaway fighters have crossed into Iran in the past 18 months for training by the elite Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.
AP's sources identify the leader of the breakaway faction as Qais al-Khazaali, a young Iraqi cleric who was al-Sadr's chief spokesman for most of 2004.
Al-Sadr himself is said to have been in Iran since last month, although he is not thought to be close to Iran's leadership or Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. (AP, March 22)