US: Iranians held in Iraq provided weapons to extremists

Tehran denied detainees' involvement in arms deals and called for their release.

iranian detainees 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
iranian detainees 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Five Iranians arrested in northern Iraq last week were connected to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents in Iraq, the US military said Sunday. The five were detained by US-led forces Thursday in a raid on an Iranian government liaison office in Irbil, a city in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq 350 kilometers north of Baghdad. "Preliminary results revealed the five detainees are connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an organization known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the Government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces," the US military said in a statement. "Qods" is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and a frequent name for political or military factions across the Muslim world. Tehran denied the five detainees had been involved in financing and arming insurgents in Iraq and called for their release along with compensation for damages. "Their job was basically consular, official and in the framework of regulations," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Sunday during his weekly media briefing. "What Americans express was incorrect and hyperbole against Iran in order to justify their acts." The detentions came as US President George W. Bush vowed to isolate Iran and Syria, which the US has accused of fueling attacks in Iraq, as part of his new war strategy. The position has raised concerns in Iraq that political tensions among the three countries were hurting Iraq's interests. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visit Sunday another US rival, Syria, in a trip that would make him the first Iraqi president to travel to the country in nearly three decades. Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Iraqi lawmaker with close ties to Talabani, said the Syria trip was not a snub to Bush. It has been planned for nearly a year, but its date was finalized about two weeks ago, he said from Baghdad. At least six people were found dead or killed in attacks Sunday, including a roadside bomb that exploded near a police patrol, killing a civilian and wounding six others in a commercial area of Baghdad. A mortar attack killed another civilian in the capital, and a beheaded body was discovered in Kut, 160 kilometers (99 miles) southeast of Baghdad, police said. Three other people, a civilian, a 20-year-old student and a Shi'ite dairy store owner, were also shot dead in separate attacks in the northern city of Mosul, police said. Separately, the British Ministry of Defense confirmed that a British soldier was killed Saturday in fighting in the southern city of Basra. Hosseini said the Iranian representative office where the five men worked was established in Irbil in 1992 to facilitate visits by Iraqi Kurdish businessmen and medical patients to Iran. "Then, both countries agreed to promote it to consular level," he said. "Agreement for formation of the Iranian consulate section was exchanged in the current (Iranian) year." The arrests were made Thursday even as Bush delivered a speech outlining a new strategy for Iraq, in which he accused Iran and Syria of not doing enough to block terrorists from entering Iraq over their borders. He specifically blamed Iran for providing material support for attacks on American troops. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces," Bush said Wednesday. "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." Hosseini said the United States was resorting to "hostility and conflict toward neighbors of Iraq" because it did not want to acknowledge it had failed to stabilize Iraq. A bitter standoff already exists between the US and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Iran has rejected all allegations. The US State Department said American-led forces entered the Irbil facility because information linked it to Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian elements engaging in violent activities in Iraq. US-led troops would "continue to disrupt logistical support to extremists that originate from outside Iraq," the statement continued. "These initiatives are part of a broader plan including diplomatic efforts designed to support the Iraqi government, protect the Iraqi people, and seek assistance from neighboring nations." There has been debate over whether the Irbil office where the men were arrested had diplomatic status, and would therefore be protected by international treaties. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, described it as a liaison office that had government approval and was in the process of being approved as an Iranian consulate. In Iran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the US raid constituted an intervention in Iranian-Iraqi affairs. But the US State Department has said no legitimate diplomatic activity was being carried out at the site, and Rice said the office was not a consulate. "The facility in which the detention took place has been described by various Iraqi officials as an Iranian liaison office, but it did not enjoy the diplomatic status of a consulate according to Iraqi and US officials," the US military statement said. Iran and the US have had no diplomatic relations since 1979 when militants seized the US Embassy in Tehran and kept 52 people hostage for 444 days.