Reuters: The U.S. military in Iraq said on Wednesday that two of the nine Iranian detainees it plans to release are “associates” of Iran’s Qods Force, an elite military unit Washington has dubbed a supporter of terrorism. BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military in Iraq said on Wednesday that two of the nine Iranian detainees it plans to release are “associates” of Iran’s Qods Force, an elite military unit Washington has dubbed a supporter of terrorism.
The two were among a group of five Iranians arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil in January and accused of running arms and money to Iraqi militants. Iran has repeatedly said the five were diplomats and demanded their release.
“Two individuals of the Arbil Five remain identified as Qods Force associates, but their individual threat to this country’s security has been deemed to be insignificant,” U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith told reporters in Baghdad.
“Qods Force has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. That has not changed, the difference is that these individuals do not themselves pose a threat to security in Iraq,” he said.
The Qods Force is a special unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and is considered its most elite branch. There are varying estimates of its strength, but it is in charge of Tehran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
The U.S. military announced on Tuesday plans to release nine Iranians in its custody in Iraq “in the coming days”.
Smith dismissed suggestions that the planned release was “payback” for a reduction in the number of incidents involving amour-piercing roadside bombs which Washington says Tehran supplies to Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
The bombs have killed scores of American soldiers.
“There is no link between the decision to release the detainees with any other factor,” Smith said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters on Tuesday that Iran had exerted its influence over Shi’ite militias to help “rein in” their activities. Iran has always denied any involvement in Iraq’s violence.
Smith said there were a total of 20 Iranians now in U.S. custody in Iraq, including the nine due to be freed.
“We have 11 individual Iranians whose individual files are reviewed approximately every six months. You can infer from the fact that they are not being released that individually they have been assessed to still pose a threat or still have a value from an intelligence point of view,” he said.
The release of the nine prisoners follows a marked softening in Washington’s rhetoric towards Iran over Iraq.
In recent days, U.S. officials have made a point of stressing the drop in violent attacks they had previously linked to armed groups under the sway of Iran.
(Reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)