BAGHDAD,Iraq -- The Iraqi government is moving to solidify relations with Iran, even as the United States ratchets up its rhetorical heat and bolsters its military forces to confront Iranian influence in Iraq.
Responding to an American raid on an Iranian office in northern Iraq last week, Iraq's foreign minister said yesterday that the Baghdad government intends to transform similar Iranian agencies into full-fledged consulates. The minister, Hoshyar Zebari, also said the Baghdad government plans to negotiate additional border entry points with Iran.
U.S. forces continued to hold the five Iranians taken during Thursday's raid. Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said records seized during the raid, and detainees' statements, confirmed that at least some of the Iranians worked for their country's intelligence service.
"I don't think there is any disagreement on the fact that these folks that we have captured are foreign intelligence agents in this country, working with Iraqis to destabilize Iraq and target coalition forces that are here at Iraq's request," Casey told reporters yesterday.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad added, "We are going after their networks in Iraq."
Iraqis, who have echoed Tehran's calls for the release of the officials, say the three-way standoff that has ensued reveals more about American meddling in Iraqi affairs than about Iranian influence.
"We, as Iraqis, have our own interest," Zebari said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times yesterday. "We are bound by geographic destiny to live with" Iran, he said, adding that the Iraqi government wants "to engage them constructively."
Zebari's comments reinforced the growing differences between the Baghdad government's approach and that of the Bush administration, which has rejected calls by the non-partisan Iraq Study Group to open talks with Iran and Syria.
Bush administration officials accuse Iran of sowing anarchy and violence in the region.
Zebari's comments came two days after Iraq and Iran announced a security agreement between the two countries. "Terrorism threatens not only Iraq but all the regional countries," said Shirwan Wail, Iraqi state minister for national security, according to Iranian radio.
The overtures to Iran also follow Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's appointment last week of a security commander for Baghdad despite objections from U.S. officials, who favored another candidate.
U.S. officials oppose the presence in Iraq of Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guards controlled by religious hard-liners in Tehran. Washington and Tehran have been at odds for decades and are locked in a standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But to Iraq, Iran is the biggest trade partner and a source of tourist revenue, mainly from the thousands of Shiite pilgrims who travel to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala every year.
In the semiautonomous Kurdish north, much of the economy is founded on trade with Iran as well as smuggling of contraband into the Islamic Republic. Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.