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Iranian troops, weapons sent to Syria

The head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards has announced that elite troops have been deployed to Syria. A former Iraqi VP has also said Iraq is allowing Iran to deliver arms to Syria.

Speaking at a rare news conference in Tehran, Guards commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari said members of the Quds Force - the Guards' special forces unit responsible for missions abroad - were active in both Syria and Lebanon.

He said they were there to "counsel" forces fighting the Syrian opposition. Iran was "proud of defending Syria," Jafari said, declaring the country to be a member of the (anti-Israeli) "resistance."

Jafari did not indicate how many Iranian soldiers were in Syria but said they were providing "intellectual and advisory help." He stressed the Iranians were not active combatants.

Other countries and Syrian opposition groups had accused Iran of providing weapons and expertise to regime forces, but the country had denied this until now.

Alleged Iraqi involvement

Meanwhile, Iraq's fugitive vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, has said in an interview from Turkey that his country was allowing Iran to use its airspace to fly in weapons to Syria.

"My country is unfortunately becoming an Iranian corridor to support the autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad, there is no doubt about that," he said in an interview with the Reuters news agency conducted in Istanbul.

Hashemi also said Syria was also using "thousands" of Iraqi militia, saying they were "supporting Bashar al-Assad and killing Syrian innocent people."

The media advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq was not taking sides in the Syrian conflict and denied Iraqi airspace was being used for Iranian arms shipments to Syria.

Hashimi fled Iraq when an arrest warrant was put out in December. The Maliki critic has since been sentenced to death by hanging in Iraq.

'Dangerous and getting worse'

Syrian television reported that UN-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with Assad Saturday to reignite efforts to end the 18-month-old conflict. Brahimi told reporters after meeting Assad that the escalating conflict in Syria posed a threat to the region and the world at large.

"The crisis is dangerous and getting worse, and it is a threat to the Syrian people, the region and the world," Brahimi said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims the conflict has killed more than 27,000 people. The United Nations puts the figure at 20,000.

mkg,mz/tj (AFP, Reuters, AP)