WASHINGTON — The U.S. military on Thursday reluctantly turned over to Iraq five Iranians it had accused of fomenting violence in Iraq. The Iraqi government promptly invited them to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and then released them to Iranian custody.
U.S. spokesmen in Baghdad and Washington said the United States had no choice but to free the five men under the terms of last year's Status of Forces Agreement, which requires the United States eventually to transfer the more than 10,000 Iraqi and third-country detainees it now holds.
The United States claims that the five, detained in January 2007 in the northern city of Erbil, were in the Qods Force, the covert arms of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and were arming and training anti-U.S. insurgents. It has not provided detailed evidence to back up that charge, asserting it would compromise secret intelligence methods, and never pressed formal charges.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. military turned over the five Iranians after Iraq issued arrest warrants for all third-country nationals in U.S. custody. Those are said to number about 150, and include Syrian, Jordanian and Libyan individuals who came to Iraq to fight American forces.
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Kelly acknowledged misgivings about the release, and its impact on U.S. military personnel in Iraq. "That is a big concern of ours, is the safety of American forces. And we . . . have of course made our concerns known to the Iraqi government," he said.
Kelly and other U.S. officials said the release did not involve a quid pro quo with Iran and was not a part of the Obama administration's attempts to engage that country's leaders.
Rather than re-arrest the five, the Iraqi government granted them a meeting with Maliki and then reportedly turned them over to Iran's embassy in Baghdad,
The Iraqi prime minister's office referred questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where officials couldn't be reached for comment. Iraqi security guards turned away a McClatchy reporter and Iraqi journalists at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad.
It could not be learned if the United States formally protested Iraq's actions.
Thursday's developments were further evidence of the shifting relationship between Iraq and the United States, which just over a week ago withdrew its remaining combat troops from Iraqi cities. In carrying out the forces agreement — and in negotiating it last year — Maliki has acted with increasing assertiveness, and sometimes in ways not in line with U.S. interests.
The release of the five Iranians also ends a 2-1/2-year saga that began when they were seized by U.S. Special Forces in Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdish region.
Iran said the five were diplomats and that the building where they were detained was an Iranian consulate. Iraq protested the detentions at the time, telling U.S. officials the Iranians were in the country legally. In March 2007, in what may have been a related incident, Iran seized 15 Royal Navy sailors it said were in Iran's territorial waters. They were released 12 days later.
U.S. officials said there was no documentation confirming the Erbil site was a diplomatic facility, and said intelligence data — including material seized after the building was searched — showed the five to be members of the Qods force.
The U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly, made clear they were unenthusiastic about freeing the Iranians. One called it "a situation where we're going to grit our teeth and do it."