BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's spokesman backed away Sunday from Iraqi officials' accusations of Iranian interference, saying that a committee had been formed to determine whether there is merit to U.S. charges that its eastern neighbor is arming and training Shiite Muslim militants here.
But hours later, spokesman Ali Dabbagh told journalists that his comments at a news conference had been misinterpreted. In a telephone call with Reuters news agency, he said proof existed and the committee's job was to compile the evidence to submit to Iran.
The conflicting statements, after meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran, reflect the difficult position in which Maliki finds himself as he attempts to juggle relations with two powerful allies who are intense rivals.
"We have no choice but to have good relations with the neighboring countries," Dabbagh said. "We do not want to be pushed into a conflict with a country like Iran."
U.S. officials had in recent weeks trumpeted the discovery of large quantities of Iranian weapons, some of them manufactured in 2008. The purported finds have not been shown to the media. But if true, they would suggest that Iran had not kept a promise to Maliki to help cut the supply of arms, funding and training to Iraqi militants.
With pressure building from the United States to confront Iran, Maliki's governing Shiite alliance last week dispatched a delegation to Tehran to discuss the evidence with senior Iranian leaders.
Iraq's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, and a spokesman for the Defense Ministry told The Times that Iranian-made weapons with manufacture dates of 2008 had been found in Basra during a recent crackdown on Shiite militias in the southern oil hub. Pentagon officials said they had also supplied the Iraqis with additional, unspecified evidence.
Iranian leaders, who deny providing backing to Iraqi militants, were furious at officials here for publicly airing their concerns. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini was quoted last week in the official Islamic Republic News Agency as "lambasting such undocumented and fabricated allegations" that he said were intended to "serve the policies of the occupying forces" -- a reference to U.S. troops.
On Sunday, Dabbagh said during a news conference that the Iraqi officials who had made the accusations against Iran had acted irresponsibly and that Maliki had appointed a Cabinet-level committee to investigate the claims. Committee members include the commander of the Iraqi armed forces and the nation's ministers of defense, interior and national security.
"We need to document this information . . . and prove whether such country is interfering or not," he said. "If there is real interference, or Iranian arming, then this is a dangerous agenda which is not accepted by the Iraqi government and should be discussed at the highest levels with Iran."
The announcement came as a surprise to U.S. officials, who last week described the discovery of large quantities of Iranian munitions in Basra as an "eye-opener" for the Iraqi government. A senior military official in Baghdad said Sunday, "We were blindsided by this.
"My guess is that the group that went over to Iran was made scared," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "That's the only thing I can think of, why they would change their position, because they have seen the evidence."
Hours later, Dabbagh softened his statement in telephone calls to Reuters and other media outlets.
In an interview arranged by a U.S. official, Dabbagh told the Washington Post that there was "concrete proof" that Iran had "interfered in Iraqi affairs."
He told Reuters: "The prime minister has ordered the formation of a committee to document the interference of the Iranians in Iraqi affairs. The Iraqi government will follow up with the Iranians and put [these findings] in front of them."
Iran, which has ties to Shiite factions on both sides of the current fighting, promised the delegation that it would help Iraq crack down on any illegal trafficking of weapons and personnel across the two countries' long and porous border, including by sharing intelligence. But Shiite lawmakers who were briefed on the visit said the pledges appeared no different from what was promised to Maliki when he visited Iran last summer.
The Basra offensive sparked a backlash by Shiite militiamen in Baghdad, which U.S. officials blame on Iranian-backed extremists. Hundreds have been killed since the fighting began at the end of March, mainly in the Sadr City stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.