March 22, 2007

BY HAMZA HENDAWI and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

ASSOCIATED PRESS

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Shi'ite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This adds another potentially deadly element to Iraq's violent mix.

Two senior militia commanders said hundreds of the fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hizballah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

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