Los Angeles Times: The U.S. said Nader Qorbani, who was detained last week, was an arms smuggler. Iran says he did restoration work at religious sites. Now he has been freed, and answers are hard to come by.
The Los Angeles Times
The U.S. said Nader Qorbani, who was detained last week, was an arms smuggler. Iran says he did restoration work at religious sites. Now he has been freed, and answers are hard to come by.
By Tina Susman
Reporting from Baghdad — Was he an Iranian arms smuggler or did he restore religious sites? Was that white powder he had on him cocaine or salt? Who arrested him, and why was he freed?
Those questions surround the detention of an Iranian man, Nader Qorbani, accused by U.S. officials of being a senior officer of Iran's Quds Force paramilitary unit but who was quietly released Friday after three days in custody.
Whatever the reality, the quick release of a man whom the United States had described as a major catch suggests the ability of Iran to push buttons here, just as the U.S. prepares to diminish its role.
Qorbani was detained at the Baghdad airport, but various U.S. and Iraqi officials have given different accounts of whether it was U.S., Iraqi or private security forces that took him into custody. U.S. officials have said he was handed over to the Iraqi government, which said he was freed Friday.
On Monday, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan said Iranian intervention was responsible for Qorbani being freed. It said Qorbani was an innocent contractor responsible for the "repairing and maintaining of the holy sites in Iraq," Iran's neighbor.
U.S. military officials, who heralded Qorbani's Nov. 18 capture with a press release headlined, "Forces detain Iranian involved in lethal aid shipments," said his job was a cover for smuggling weapons into Iraq in boxes of building materials. It said Qorbani was carrying cocaine and was attempting to leave Iraq when he was arrested at the airport.
American military and political officials in Baghdad have refused to say publicly whether Iranian pressure led to Qorbani's release.
"We respected their [Iraqi] sovereignty by complying with their request. Their request was to transfer the individual into their custody," said a military spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Abram McGull.
Iraqi lawmakers are expected to vote Wednesday on a pact that would remove U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30, and remove all U.S. troops from the country by Jan. 1, 2012. The pact would also reduce the autonomy of the remaining American forces here.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of meddling in the negotiations to further Iranian goals of getting American forces out of Iraq sooner.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has urged lawmakers to approve the plan, but Iran, his closest ally in the region, has said the pact will leave American forces in Iraq for too long. If the deal passes, Maliki will find himself further squeezed between his need for the security the U.S. presence offers, and the need to work with Iran.
Maliki, like many of Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders, has strong ties to Shiite-dominated Iran, where the most powerful of Iraq's Shiite political parties were formed in the 1980s by Iraqi exiles fleeing the Sunni Muslim-dominated government of Saddam Hussein. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which ousted Hussein and ushered in the current Shiite leadership, the Iraqi government has often found itself caught between Iranian and American interests.
U.S. troops have arrested several alleged Iranian agents in Iraq, drawing the wrath of Iran. Iraqi officials have often urged the United States to free the detainees to lessen the tension on Iraqi soil, and some have been let go. In all cases, the U.S. has said the detainees were Iranian agents, while Iran said they were diplomats or Iranians conducting legitimate business in Iraq.
Iraqi officials have been just as reluctant as the Americans to provide details about the new incident. The national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said "no comment" when asked about Qorbani. Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh did not return phone calls seeking comment. Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi acknowledged that the Iraqi government had intervened on Qorbani's behalf but made it clear he preferred the situation be left alone.
"As long as he's released now, the whole situation is behind us. It doesn't really matter who held him, or who arrested him," Abbawi said. "Everybody's happy about the outcome."
Not necessarily the Americans, who have long accused Iran of sending bomb parts, spies and militia trainers into Iraq to wreak havoc. Iran, for its part, has accused the United States of making things up. This time was no different. Kayhan said the Qorbani detention was part of a U.S. plan "in line with psychological warfare to destroy the Iran-Iraq friendly relations."
Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency quoted an Iranian diplomat, who was not named, as saying the white stuff found on Qorbani was salt, not cocaine. McGull said the "white powdery substance," about 50 grams' worth, initially tested positive for cocaine but was retested and found to be non-narcotic. He said he did not know what it was.
The Qorbani case might not have seemed so odd but for the U.S. military's initial announcement of his arrest, and then its silence.
In the two days after the announcement, nothing was said about the case until Thursday, when Army Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the U.S. military spokesman, was asked about the man's status.
Perkins said Qorbani had been held for a short period of time and given to the Iraqi government. Perkins described him as a Quds Force officer. He also said, twice, that Iraqi security forces, not U.S., had made the arrest.
McGull later said that a private security company contracted by the United States to work at the airport had detained Qorbani. He said Qorbani was turned over to U.S. forces and held until Thursday, when he was handed to Iraqi officials. He was freed the next day and returned to Iran.
Asked if it was difficult to watch a man accused of smuggling the type of weapons blamed for U.S. and Iraqi deaths go free, another U.S. military official said releases are all part of the U.S.-Iraqi working relationship.
"This is one of them we had to work together on," McGull said. It was decided we had to release him."
The issue of Iranian influence is a touchy one for Iraq's lawmakers, many of whom have close ties to Iran. A late addition to the security agreement reflected Iran's concerns about a U.S. strike on its territory. It was a clause mandating that Iraqi territory not be used to launch attacks on neighboring states.
Susman is a Times staff writer.
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad contributed to this report.