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Iranian soldiers are fighting for Assad in Syria, U.S. says

MUSCAT, Oman — Iran has sent soldiers to Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing an unnamed senior State Department official.

An unknown number of Iranians are fighting inside Syria, the official said, citing accounts from opposition forces supported by Western and Arab governments. The official spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to preview a strategy session that Secretary of State John Kerry will hold today with key opposition supporters.

Syrian rebels have claimed for weeks that Iran is sending trained fighters to the Syrian civil war, and Iran-backed Hezbollah has said that it will not let Assad fall.

But with the British, French and American governments considering arms for the opposition on a scale not yet seen in the more than two-year-old conflict, the U.S. official's allegation was a new acknowledgment that the Syrian conflict has become a regional war and a de facto U.S. proxy fight with Iran.

Kerry is on a dual mission in the Middle East this week to foster political talks between Assad's resurgent regime and the embattled rebels, and to inaugurate a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The State Department official said the Syrian opposition, which is badly split, has not finalized its representative to the talks today in Amman, Jordan. The Amman session is intended to align strategies ahead of a larger conference in Switzerland that would bring together the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime and the Western-backed rebels.

Kerry stopped in Oman on Tuesday to solidify a partnership with a rare Sunni Arab nation that has friendly relations with both Iran and the United States. He was readying plans with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said for Oman's purchase of an estimated $2.1 billion air defense system.

Developments in civil war in Syria

• The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 on Tuesday to provide weapons to rebels battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the first time lawmakers have endorsed the aggressive U.S. military step. The fate of the bill is uncertain, with opposition among several senators and far less enthusiasm in the House for stepped-up military action.

• Israeli military and Syrian army troops exchanged fire Tuesday along the cease-fire line in the occupied Golan Heights, an area that has become a potential flash point for spillover from the civil war in Syria. After an Israel Defense Forces jeep was hit by small-arms fire from the Syrian military post, Israel returned fire, an Israeli military spokesman said.

• In Syria on Tuesday, airstrikes and heavy clashes continued in the city of Qusair for a third day, as the government attempted to wrest back control of the strategic western town.

Iranian soldiers are fighting for Assad in Syria, U.S. says 05/21/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 11:48pm]

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