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Iran lawmaker criticizes US training of Syrian rebels

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iranian parliament member Alaeddin Boroujerdi, right, shakes hands with Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, left, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, May 14, 2015. A prominent Iranian lawmaker has criticized the training of some Syrian rebels by the United States and its allies, calling it a "strategic mistake." The U.S. program to train Syria's moderate rebels began earlier this month in Jordan and is scheduled to expand to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (SANA via AP)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A prominent Iranian lawmaker on Thursday said a U.S.-backed plan to train moderate Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State extremist group is a “strategic mistake” that will fuel terrorism.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committees, made the remarks during a high-profile visit to Damascus. The Syrian government has said the program will complicate efforts to reach a political solution to the conflict, now in its fifth year.

The training started in Jordan earlier this month with about 90 rebels and is due to expand to include training in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. U.S. officials say the program is part of a broader effort to combat the IS group – not President Bashar Assad’s forces. Many rebels have criticized that narrow focus and said the assistance is too little, too late.

“This is a strategic mistake by the U.S. and allies in the West,” Boroujerdi said. “It only reveals the real hated and despicable face of what they do in terms of training and preparing terrorists.” He went on to reaffirm Iran’s support for Assad’s “stable and permanent” government.

The Syrian government also describes the rebels fighting to topple Assad as “terrorists.”

Boroujerdi’s visit comes as Syrian forces have suffered a number of battlefield setbacks in the north and south and face an IS advance in central Syria, where the extremists have seized a large arms depot and were engaged in fierce clashes Thursday with government forces outside of Palmyra, a major historical site.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters entered several buildings east of Palmyra before they were pushed back by government forces. Syrian state TV said troops repelled infiltration attempts east of the city, killing some IS fighters.

Palmyra is known for its nearly 2,000-year-old ruins that once attracted thousands of tourists, who came to see its towering Roman colonnades and a temple to the god Baal.

The city is also home to a notorious prison that carries its name in Arabic, Tadmur, where many members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as well as other detainees have been held for years.

Assad has acknowledged the setbacks, but vowed to fight on. Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have made progress in the Qalamoun mountains along Lebanon’s border, near the Syrian capital.

In the northern province of Aleppo, the Observatory said at least 39 civilians, including 17 children, were killed in a government airstrike on Wednesday.

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