News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqU.S. and Iraq dispute role of Iranians but free...

U.S. and Iraq dispute role of Iranians but free them


The New York Times: Under heavy American pressure, the Iraqi government ordered two Iranians who had been detained in an American military raid to leave the country, Iraqi officials said Friday, ending a bitter, nine-day political standoff. The New York Times

Published: December 30, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 29 — Under heavy American pressure, the Iraqi government ordered two Iranians who had been detained in an American military raid to leave the country, Iraqi officials said Friday, ending a bitter, nine-day political standoff.

The detention brought the increasingly strained relationship between the Iraqis who run this country and their American backers to one of its lowest ebbs.

The Americans had insisted that the Iranians had been running guns and planning sectarian attacks and had pressed the Iraqis to expel them as intruders.

Iraqi officials said Friday that it was clear that the men, who were not publicly identified but were described as Iranian military officials by the Bush administration, had not been entirely forthcoming about what they were doing in Iraq.

Even so, the Iraqis said they believed that the evidence against the men was mostly circumstantial and not as damning as the Americans had portrayed. For that reason, the Iraqis said, the government decided to release them.

“There was some suspicions on their activities, but not in a red-handed way,” Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said in an interview. Still, he conceded, “the things they were doing were not consistent with their mission.”

While the outcome was constructed to satisfy all sides, the episode, which began with an Iranian Embassy Mercedes being pulled over and led to a raid on the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a powerful Shiite leader, deeply upset many Iraqi officials, who had been carefully building relations with Iran.

Mr. Zebari said that the men were visitors, not accredited diplomats as some officials had initially asserted, but that they had entered the country legally. It remained unclear on Friday night whether they had come at the invitation of Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani. A spokesman has said the invitation was been extended during a visit to Tehran by Mr. Talabani this month.

The men were released from American custody sometime Friday morning, after days of backroom negotiations among the Americans, the Iranians and the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Then they were driven overland into Iran shortly before noon, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that appeared carefully worded so as not to offend this country’s powerful neighbor.

The events demonstrated the deepening fissures between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the United States. The government has been pressing for months for more autonomy from the Americans, asking for more control over its army and decision-making in the capital. The detention was a painful reminder of how little control Iraqis have over their own affairs.

“This is hurting what we call the Iraqi sovereignty,” said one government official who had traveled to Tehran to help handle the diplomatic fallout. Iranian officials “have a question whether Iraq is a real sovereign country or not. This is a natural question.”

An official in the Iranian Embassy confirmed the release, and echoed concerns expressed by some Iraqi officials earlier this week that the arrest seemed politically motivated. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Saturday imposing mild sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment, two days after the raid in Baghdad.

“It’s a message from this American administration to the Iraqi government,” said the official, who did not give his name because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. “It says you can’t build any relationship with any country without our approval.”

The Bush administration has rejected pressure to open talks with Iran about that country’s action in Iraq, and some Iraqi officials said Friday that the raid had a political tinge.

“We get delegates from Turkey and Syria, but when we have delegates from Iran, this is what happens,” the government official said.

The official said the men were released in good health. He said the release was evidence that the suspicions against them were groundless.

The American military has said it has detailed evidence collected in the raid that linked the Iranians to illicit weapons shipments to Shiite militia groups, and to attacks on American and Iraqi forces. The Americans declined comment on why they went along with the deal.

Whatever the case, the behind-the-scenes discussions were intense. An Iraqi politician familiar with the case said the Americans had been trying to get the Iraqis to expel the men and declare them persona non grata.

But the Iraqis pushed back. They agreed to release a statement that condemned interference by neighboring countries in general, but stopped short of capitulating fully to American wishes and declaring the men intruders.

The delicately worded statement said the government “emphasizes to Iraqi neighboring countries the necessity of respecting the independence of Iraq.”

But it added that Iraq wants “to continue good relations with its neighbor Iran and hopes that such incidents will not be repeated in the future, which may disturb these relations.”

American officials have long asserted that Iran is sending weapons and money into Iraq to fuel violence here, but the episode last week was the first one in which they made such high-level arrests. A number of Iranians have been arrested here but most entered the country illegally and none had been directly tied to the government.

The American military did not publicly present the evidence it said was found in the raid. Some of it was believed to have included receipts for sniper rifles and sophisticated bombs as well as maps of Baghdad identifying neighborhoods as Sunni, Shiite or mixed — the primary preoccupation of militias in Iraq’s deepening sectarian war.

But the Iraqis said that the arrest had been more of a blunder and that if the suspected crimes had been serious, the Americans would never have released them.

The politician said that the men were supposed to be let go on Thursday morning, but that the release had been delayed over the American insistence on declaring the men intruders. “There was nothing to hold them on,” the Iraqi politician familiar with the case said. “It speaks to the general confusion.”

American officials have released people its military ground commanders believe have committed crimes. This fall, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. intervened in the arrest of a sheik from the northern neighborhood of Shuala. The military believed that the man, known as Sheik Mazin, was involved in death squads and kidnapping rings. But he was a close ally of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who exerts vast influence over the Iraqi government, and General Casey said later that the political gain from releasing him outweighed the military loss.

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