BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. officers said Monday they had discovered a factory for assembling sophisticated roadside bombs from Iranian-made components _ the first such facility uncovered in a religiously mixed province north of Baghdad.
The officers, who displayed weapons for reporters at a U.S. base in the capital, said the find provides more evidence that the Iranians are providing weapons used to kill Americans. They include EFPs _ explosively formed projectiles _ that fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating armored vehicles and have been blamed for killing more than 170 U.S. and coalition soldiers since 2004.
Military officials also said the cache _ buried in two freezers and a water container, with some of the rockets covered by tarps _ was the largest of its kind to be found north of Baghdad.
``This is a significant amount,'' said Capt. Clayton Combs, the commander of the company that found the cache in the volatile Diyala province. ``Before we have found one or two EFPs at the most and those are usually at the site of deployment. This is the first cache ... that has actually been found as far as a production facility.''
Among the parts found during a raid Saturday after a tip from an Iraqi informant were 120 mm mortars and 122 mm rockets that the military said were made in Iran. Markings indicated they were made after the U.S.-led invasion nearly four years ago, which would rule out that they were leftovers from the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
The cache also included artillery, anti-personnel mines, as well as more than 150 metal discs, detonation cords, electronic triggering mechanisms and C-4 plastic explosives _ all laid out in piles for a press conference at the main U.S. military base on the western edge of Baghdad. The military said some smaller munitions had been destroyed at the site.
The display was the latest in a series presented by the U.S. military to bolster its allegation that Iranian weapons are being supplied to Shiite militias.
Iran has denied the charge, and some private defense analysts say Iranian weaponry is widely available on international arms markets.
U.S. ordnance experts maintain that the workmanship on component parts is uniquely Iranian and too high in quality to have been copied by Iraqi extremists without access to advanced machinery.
The U.S. military has said elite Iranian corps are funneling EFPs to Shiite militias in Iraq for use against American troops, and earlier this month reporters in Baghdad were shown pieces of EFPs officials said were directly traceable to Iran.
Officials declined to link the find in Diyala to the Iranian government but said it was further proof that weapons were coming from the neighboring country, which is locked in a standoff with Washington over allegations it is fueling the violence in Iraq and seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
``It's proof beyond a doubt that there's Iranian manufactured weapons being used by insurgents in Iraq,'' military spokesman Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle said in Baghdad. ``But we can't say based on what we had and what we found who's involved in it.''
Aberle said caches with components for making the weapons had been found elsewhere in Iraq but this was the first time one had been found in the Diyala area. The discovery comes amid concerns that militants have been streaming northward to escape the security crackdown in Baghdad.
Ordnance officer Maj. Marty Weber said the country of origin of the mortars and rockets could be determined by the markings and the structure of the weapons, which can be fitted together with copper basins to create the deadly roadside bombs.
The cache was found west of the provincial capital of Baqouba. The area is dominated by Sunni insurgents, but also includes pockets of Shiites.
Maj. Jeremy Siegrist, the battalion's executive officer, said he had no evidence Sunni groups in the area were using EFPs and he indicated it was more likely that Shiite groups were using the weapons, which were found in the village of Jadida that is known to house some members of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
``We have found EFPs in areas that are Sunni but that doesn't mean that Sunnis were using them. It could have been Shia that brought them there,'' he said. ``I don't have any hard evidence to say that any Sunni-based insurgency group is using EFPs in Diyala province.''
When asked if that meant it was more likely that Shiite groups were using the weapons, he said, ``I believe so based on the areas where we find the EFPs.''
He also said the discovery of an assembly factory cast doubt on previous assumptions that the deadly weapons were made elsewhere and imported to the area, some 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
``From this conceivably you could make 50 or more EFPs,'' he said. ``All of our assumptions, at least in Diyala, have been that EFPs are made externally and brought into Diyala and this obviously refutes that hypothesis in that there's more and they're being made locally,'' he said.
Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, spokesman for Multinational Division-North, said it was ``the most potentially lethal IED cache seized in northern Iraq in the past eight months.''
Last week, U.S. troops found a suspected Shiite weapons hideout in the southern city of Hillah that also included parts to make the lethal roadside bombs.
The New York Times reported that the stash included a bomb-rigged fake boulder made of polyurethane that was apparently ready to be placed for an attack. Hezbollah guerrillas have used such a device in southern Lebanon. Iran is believed to be a major supporter of Hezbollah.