Iran to expand its role in Iraq

Envoy outlines plan to widen military and economic ties

January 29, 2007|By James Glanz | James Glanz,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iran's ambassador to Iraq outlined his country's ambitious plan yesterday to greatly expand economic and military ties with Iraq - including an Iranian national bank branch in the heart of the capital - that will almost certainly bring Iran into further conflict with U.S. military forces that have detained a number of Iranian operatives here in recent weeks.

The ambassador, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, said Iran is prepared to offer Iraqi forces training, equipment and advisers for what he called "the security fight." In the economic area, Qumi said, Iran is ready to assume major responsibility for the reconstruction of Iraq, an area of notable failure on the part of the United States since American-led forces overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago.

Qumi also acknowledged, for the first time, that two Iranians seized and later released by American forces last month were security officials, as the United States had said. But he said they were engaged in legitimate discussions with the Iraqi government and should not have been detained.

Qumi's remarks, in a 90-minute interview over tea and Iranian pistachio nuts at the Iranian Embassy here, amounted to the most authoritative and substantive response the Iranians have made yet to increasingly belligerent accusations by the Bush administration that Iran is acting against American interests in Iraq. President Bush has said that the U.S. military is authorized to take whatever action necessary against Iranians in Iraq found to be engaged in actions deemed hostile.

The Iranian ambassador abruptly agreed to a long-standing request for the interview - made repeatedly after the first American seizure of Iranians here Dec. 21 - and seemed eager to rebut the accusations and assert Iran's legitimate interests in its neighbor. How much direction, if any, he was taking from his government was unclear.

The political and diplomatic standoff that followed the Dec. 21 raid until the Iranians were released nine days later has contributed, along with a dispute over Iran's nuclear program, to greatly increased tensions between the United States and Iran. This month, American forces detained five more Iranians in a raid on a diplomatic office in the northern city of Erbil.

While providing few details, the United States has said that evidence gleaned in the Baghdad raid, made on an Iraqi Shiite leader's residential compound, proves that the Iranians were involved in planning attacks on American and Iraqi forces.

With a look of restrained sarcasm, Qumi ridiculed the evidence that the U.S. military has said it collected, including maps of Baghdad delineating Sunni, Shiite and mixed neighborhoods - the kind of maps, some American officials have said, that would be useful for militias engaged in ethnic slaughter. Qumi said the maps were so common and easily obtainable that they proved nothing.

He did not say whether he believed the maps bore sectarian markings or address other pieces of evidence the Americans said that they had found, such as manifests of weapons and material relating to the technology of sophisticated roadside bombs. But that is not why the Iranians were in the compound, he said.

"They worked in the security sector in the Islamic Republic, that's clear," Qumi said, referring to Iran.

But he said the Iranians were in Iraq because "the two countries agreed to solve the security problems." The Iranians "went to meet with the Iraqi side," he said.

In a surprise announcement, Qumi said Iran would soon open a national bank in Iraq, in effect creating a new Iranian financial institution right under the Americans' noses. A senior Iraqi banking official, Hussein al-Uzri, confirmed that Iran had received a license to open the bank, which al-Uzri said would apparently be the first "wholly owned subsidiary bank" of a foreign country in Iraq.

"This will enhance trade between the two countries," al-Uzri said.

A number of American and Iraqi officials said yesterday that it was difficult to respond to Qumi's statements until they had been communicated through official routes. A spokesman for the American Embassy in Baghdad, Lou Fintor, declined to address the statements directly but said the U.S.-led forces here continue "to assist the Iraqi government in securing its borders and preventing foreign interference in Iraqi affairs."

Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, said yesterday that the United States has a significant body of evidence tying Iran to sectarian attacks inside Iraq.

"There is a high degree of confidence in the information that we already have, and we are constantly accumulating more," McCormack said.

He did not address any of the specifics of Qumi's comments about Iran's plans for stronger economic and security ties in Iraq, but said that Iraq currently plays "a negative role in many respects" in the country.

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