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Iran training militia that backs Assad in Syria, Panetta says

August 14, 2012 |  2:33 pm

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin DempseyWASHINGTON — Iran is providing military training to a pro-government militia in Syria, part of a growing effort by Tehran to prevent armed rebels from driving President Bashar Assad’s government from power, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Tuesday.

“We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “We do not think Iran ought to be playing that role. It adds to the killing."

The militia, known as the Army of the People, has emerged as a force over the last year as Syria’s military has struggled to put down the rebellion. Its fighters are drawn mainly from Shiites and Alawites, two Muslim sects that form the core of the Assad government's support against the largely Sunni revolt. It wasn't immediately clear where or how large the militia is.

Last week, the Obama administration charged that Lebanon-based Hezbollah also was assisting Syria's government in its crackdown on opposition groups.

The sectarian nature of the fighting is causing mounting concern in Washington. Analysts fear a long-running civil war in Syria would worsen the humanitarian crisis, exacerbate regional instability and help keep Assad in power.

Though Iran may be stepping up its support for Assad, the Obama administration has declined to provide U.S. military equipment and aerial protection to the rebels. Panetta reiterated that stance Tuesday, though he acknowledged that U.S. allies may be supplying the rebels with weapons.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said a Syrian fighter jet downed Monday did appear to have been shot down, as claimed by the rebels. But he said it wasn’t clear whether the plane was hit by surface-to-air missile or by small arms fire.

A successful strike from a portable missile would indicate the insurgents were starting to acquire more capable and more sophisticated weapons, which could give them an edge over Assad’s forces in the coming weeks.

Dempsey said Iran was coming to the aid of its longtime ally in Damascus because defections and supply problems are plaguing the Syrian army, which has been fighting the rebels for nearly 18 months.

“I think that’s why Iran is stepping forward to form the militia,” said Dempsey, who joined Panetta at the news conference.

White House spokesman Jay Carney separately told reporters that Assad "no longer has control" over Syria.

"We are doing everything we can with our allies to tighten the noose, if you will, around Assad through diplomatic and financial means, through sanctions and international pressure," Carney said in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The administration will "continue to look for ways to increase the pressure on Assad and deprive Assad of the funds that he depends on to wage war against his own people."


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-- David S. Cloud

Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looks over at Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Tuesday during a news conference at the Pentagon. Credit: Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images