US says Iran training Syrian militia

Leon Panetta: ''We are seeing a growing presence by Iran (in Syria) and that is of deep concern to us''

Iran is helping to build and train a militia in Syria to prop up embattled President Bashar al-Assad, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff says.

Gen Martin Dempsey said so-called "Jaysh al-Shaab" was intended to take the pressure off government forces.

Iran has described Syria as part of an "axis of resistance" against terrorism which it would not allow to be broken.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation is due to suspend Syria's membership, despite Iranian objections.

The 57-member organisation is expected to endorse the decision of its foreign ministers at a summit in the Saudi holy city of Mecca.

Saudi state TV showed King Abdullah welcoming leaders with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his side. They were shown talking and laughing together.

'Bolstering doomed regime'

Sitting alongside US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, Gen Dempsey said Syrian government forces were "taxed" after fighting for almost 18 months "with that kind of pace".

"They are having resupply problems, they are having morale problems, they are having the kind of wear and tear that would come of being in a fight for as long as they have," he said.

Iran-Syria strategic alliance

  • After Iran's 1979 revolution, Damascus and Tehran opposed Saddam Hussein's Iraq
  • Both aim to check Israeli advances in Lebanon and to prevent US influence in Middle East
  • They support the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah and Palestinian militant group Hamas
  • In August 2012, Iran declared Syria an essential part of an "axis of resistance"

To help, Iran was training a militia "made up of Syrians, generally Shia and some Alawite", Gen Dempsey said, a reference to the Shia heterodox sect to which President Assad belongs. It was called "Jaysh al-Shaab" or "Army of the People", he added.

US officials have not publicly mentioned any such group before, although they have accused Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards and its overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, of actively advising, supplying, and assisting the Syrian security forces and government-backed militia.

Syria's majority Sunni community has been at the forefront of the revolt against the president and borne the brunt of the state's crackdown.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) is believed to be supported financially by Sunni-ruled Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey.

Speaking at the same news conference, Mr Panetta said it had become obvious that Iran was providing assistance and training for the Syrian regime.

"We do not think that Iran ought to be playing that role at this moment in time," he said.

"It is adding to the killing that's going on in Syria, and it tries to bolster a regime that we think ultimately is going to come down."

Gen Dempsey said Washington had held talks with Syria's neighbours Jordan and Turkey about the possible need for a safe zone, amid an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting.

"With a safe haven would probably come some form of no-fly zone, but we are not planning anything unilaterally," he said.

Gen Dempsey also said it appeared that rebels had recently shot down a Syrian warplane, despite Damascus insisting that it had suffered a technical fault.

However, he said there was no indication that the rebels were armed with heavy weapons or surface-to-air missiles.

He said the jet could have been brought down with small-arms fire.

In other developments:

  • President Assad's special envoy, Bouthaina Shaaban, is in Beijing for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi
  • Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily accuses some Western countries of seeking regime change in Syria
  • UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is due to visit Lebanon during a regional tour to improve aid for Syrian refugees
  • Ex-Syrian PM Riad Hijab, who defected to Jordan last week, said the Syrian government was collapsing "morally, financially and militarily"
Brutal videos

Violence has spread in recent weeks to Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

Iran's President Ahmadinejad, right, with Saudi King Abdullah. 14 Aug 2012 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, appeared alongside Saudi King Abdullah at the Mecca summit

On Wednesday, state media reported a large blast close to a hotel used by the United Nations observer mission in the capital. The report said three people had been injured.

The army is battling to regain control of Aleppo after retaking parts of Damascus seized by insurgents last month.

On Tuesday, activists in Aleppo said the army had shelled several rebel-held areas including Saif al-Dawla and Salah al-Din.

State news agency Sana reported that a number of "terrorists" had been killed or wounded in several areas of the city.

The rebels have themselves have come in for increasing criticism because of their apparent mistreatment of prisoners in and around Aleppo.

A day after videos emerged of one man having his throat cut and the bodies of others being thrown off a roof, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) spoke out against what it termed "executions".

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