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Jan 27, 12:03 PM EST

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- A senior commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard said Wednesday that it is training volunteer "advisers" to serve alongside President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria.

General Mohsen Kazemeini said Iran feels an "obligation" to send "military advisers" to Syria to protect Shiite shrines at the request of the Assad government. His comments were posted Wednesday on a website for the Basij, a paramilitary division of the Guard.

"The Basij division of Tehran carries out registration of volunteers for advisory activities in Syria," Kazemeini said. "Only a few of those trained are dispatched to Syria."

Tehran has acknowledged that Guard officers are on the ground in Syria in an advisory role, but denies it has sent combat troops. A number of Iranian soldiers have been killed in Syria, including high-ranking officers. Wednesday's statement was the first time Iran has publicly acknowledged training volunteers to fight in Syria.

Iran is a key ally of Assad and has provided military and financial support throughout the five-year civil war.

The portraits and names of volunteers killed in Syria have begun to appear on billboards across Tehran in recent weeks, signaling a rise in Iranian deaths.

Iran has long been a close ally of Syria, viewing it as a forward line of defense against Israel. Iran is also concerned about the rise of the Islamic State group and other Sunni insurgents fighting in Syria.

Last summer, Rahim Nowei-Aghdam, a senior Guard commander, called on Iranians to volunteer to fight in Syria. "If we don't fight Daesh in Syria and Iraq, then we will have to fight them in Tehran," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

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