U.S. frees 9 Iranians detained in Iraq

more talks planned

Two were suspected of bringing anti-armor bombs into country

November 10, 2007|By Ned Parker

BAGHDAD -- The U.S military freed nine Iranians yesterday it had detained in Iraq, and an Iraqi official said he expected another round of talks this month including his government and the two bitter rivals.

Two of those released by the Americans were among five men detained in January in a U.S. raid in the northern city of Irbil. They had been accused of belonging to Iran's elite Quds force, which the United States suspects of backing Shiite militias and bringing armor-piercing bombs into Iraq.

The U.S. military identified the two as Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh.

"All nine individuals were determined to no longer pose a security risk and to be of no continued intelligence value," it said in a statement.

Some of the other Iranians had been held since 2004. They included two individuals who been detained in the former Sunni insurgent hot spots of Fallujah and Ramadi, and two who were picked up during raids targeting al-Qaida operatives. The U.S. military has previously accused predominantly Shiite Iran of supporting Sunni fighters, a claim that remains unsubstantiated.

The remaining three Iranians had been picked up crossing into Iraq illegally or in other raids.

Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency reported that the nine Iranians had arrived at Tehran's airport yesterday.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that after the U.S. move, Iraq was planning to ask Iran and the United States to attend a fourth round of the talks that began in summer.

"It will help build confidence and enhance our dialogue between the United States, Iran and Iraq on security issues. I think we are going to call for another round of talks soon this month," he said.

"From the beginning, ... the Iraqi government has been calling for the U.S. military and U.S. Embassy to release them. Now they have released nine of them," he said in an interview.

In late September, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had received assurances from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran would work toward decreasing the violence in Iraq.

Zebari said that it seemed Iran had exerted its influence on Shiite militants to lower the level of violence. On Nov. 2, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates noted the drop in bombing attacks by Shiite militants but said he needed more time to determine whether it was the result of Iran's influence.

This week, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said that the Americans were holding 20 Iranians in custody. A Defense Department official said earlier in the week that releasing some of them could help ease tensions with Iran. State and Defense Department officials have expressed worries that another American-led arrest of Iranians or a border incident could spark a broader conflict between the two countries.

The remaining Iranian detainees include a suspected member of the Quds force picked up by the Americans in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya in September and three others, also detained in January's Irbil raid, whom the Americans suspect of backing Shiite extremist groups and smuggling explosives.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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