“Senior military officials.” By James Glanz and Sabrina Tavernise for the New York Times:
BAGHDAD, Dec. 24 “” The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.
The Bush administration made no public announcement of the politically delicate seizure of the Iranians, though in response to specific questions the White House confirmed Sunday that the Iranians were in custody.
Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said two Iranian diplomats were among those initially detained in the raids. The two had papers showing that they were accredited to work in Iraq, and he said they were turned over to the Iraqi authorities and released. He confirmed that a group of other Iranians, including the military officials, remained in custody while an investigation continued, and he said, “We continue to work with the government of Iraq on the status of the detainees.”
It was unclear what kind of evidence American officials possessed that the Iranians were planning attacks, and the officials would not identify those being held. One official said that “a lot of material” was seized in the raid, but would not say if it included arms or documents that pointed to planning for attacks. Much of the material was still being examined, the official said.
Nonetheless, the two raids, in central Baghdad, have deeply upset Iraqi government officials, who have been making strenuous efforts to engage Iran on matters of security. At least two of the Iranians were in this country on an invitation extended by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, during a visit to Tehran earlier this month. It was particularly awkward for the Iraqis that one of the raids took place in the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, who traveled to Washington three weeks ago to meet President Bush.
Over the past four days, the Iraqis and Iranians have engaged in intense behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the release of the remaining detainees. One Iraqi government official said, “The Iranian ambassador has been running around from office to office.”
Iraqi leaders appealed to the American military, including to Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American ground commander in Iraq, to release the Iranians, according to an Iraqi politician familiar with the efforts. The debate about what to do next has also engaged officials in the White House and the State Department. The national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, has been fully briefed, officials said, though they would not say what Mr. Bush has been told about the seizure or the identity of the
A senior Western official in Baghdad said the raids were conducted after American officials received information that the people detained had been involved in attacks on official security forces in Iraq. “We conduct operations against those who threaten Iraqi and coalition forces,” the official said. “This was based on information.”
A spokesman for Mr. Hakim, who heads a Shiite political party called Sciri, which began as an exile group in Iran that opposed Saddam Hussein, declined to comment. In Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, had no comment about the case on Sunday other than to say it was under examination.
Much about the raids and the identities of the Iranians remained unclear on Sunday. American officials offered few details. They said that an investigation was under way and that they wanted to give the Iraqi government time to figure out its position. A
Bush administration official said the Iranian military officials held in custody were suspected of being members of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. It has been involved in training members of Hezbollah and other groups that the Americans
regard as terrorist organizations.
American and Iraqi officials have long accused Iran of interfering in this country”s internal affairs, but have rarely produced evidence. The administration presented last week’s arrests as a potential confirmation of the link. Mr. Johndroe said, “We
suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities.”
The raids and arrests were confirmed by at least seven officials and politicians in Baghdad and Washington. Still, the development was being viewed skeptically on Sunday by some Iraqis, who said that they suspected that the timing was intended to reinforce arguments by some in the administration that direct talks with Iran would be futile.
The United States is now holding, apparently for the first time, Iranians who it suspects of planning attacks. One senior administration official said, “This is going to be a tense but clarifying moment.”