U.S. Is Holding Iranians Seized in Raids in Iraq


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 25, 2006

U.S. Is Holding Iranians Seized in Raids in Iraq

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, ³We continue to work with the government 
of Iraq on the status of the detainees.²

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 ³a lot of material² 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 Iraq¹s 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 
Iraq¹s 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, ³The Iranian ambassador has been running around 
from office to office.²

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 detainees.

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. ³We conduct operations 
against those who threaten Iraqi and coalition forces,² the official said. ³This
was based on information.²

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

The action comes at a moment of extraordinary tension in the three-way 
relationship between the United States, Iran and Iraq. On Saturday, even as 
American officials were trying to determine the identity of some of the 
Iranians, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution imposing mild 
sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Meanwhile,
the Bush administration has rejected pressure to open talks with Iran about its 
actions in Iraq.

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 

American and Iraqi officials have long accused Iran of interfering in this 
country¹s internal affairs, but have rarely produced evidence. The 
administration presented last week¹s arrests as a potential confirmation of the 
link. Mr. Johndroe said, ³We suspect this event validates our claims about 
Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained 
Iranians before characterizing their activities.²

He added: ³We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger 
picture after we finish our investigation.²

In the raids, the Americans also detained a number of Iraqis. Western and Iraqi 
officials said that following normal protocol, the two Iranian diplomats were 
turned over to the Iraqi government after being questioned. The Iraqis, in turn,
released them to the Iranian Embassy. An Iraqi official said his government had 
strained to keep the affair out of the public eye to avoid scuttling the talks 
with Iran that were now under way.

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.

An administration official in Washington disputed that, saying, ³When the 
military conducted the raids, they really didn¹t know who they were going to 

The United States is now holding, apparently for the first time, Iranians who it
suspects of planning attacks. One senior administration official said, ³This is 
going to be a tense but clarifying moment.²

³It¹s our position that the Iraqis have to seize this opportunity to sort out 
with the Iranians just what kind of behavior they are going to tolerate,² the 
official said, declining to speak on the record because the details of the raid 
and investigation were not yet public. ³They are going to have to confront the 
evidence that the Iranians are deeply involved in some of the acts of violence.²

The events that led to the arrests of the Iranians began on Thursday, although 
details are sketchy.

In one raid, which took place around 7 p.m. that day, American forces stopped an
official Iranian Embassy car carrying the two Iranian diplomats, one or two 
Iranian guards and an Iraqi driver. Iraqi officials said that the diplomats had 
been praying at the Buratha mosque and that when it was stopped, the car was in 
the Allawi neighborhood, a few minutes from the Iranian Embassy to the west of 
the Tigris River.

All in the car were detained by the Americans. The mosque¹s imam, Sheik Jalal 
al-deen al-Sageir, a member of Parliament from Mr. Hakim¹s party, said the 
Iranians had come to pray during the last day of mourning for his mother, who 
recently died. He said that after the Iranians left, the Iranian Embassy phoned 
to say that they had not arrived as expected. ³We were afraid they were 
kidnapped,² Sheik Sageir said.

But he said he was later informed that the diplomats, whom he said that he did 
not know well, were in the custody of Americans. ³I had nothing to do with 
that,² Sheik Sageir said. ³I don¹t know why the Americans took them.²

The predawn raid on Mr. Hakim¹s compound, on the east side of the Tigris, was 
perhaps the most startling part of the American operation. The arrests were made
inside the house of Hadi al-Ameri, the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament¹s 
security committee and leader of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Mr. 
Hakim¹s political party.

Many Shiite political groups are now suspected of having ties to Iran, and Sciri
is no exception. Senior party leaders lived in exile in Iran for years plotting 
the overthrow of Mr. Hussein. Some married Iranians and raised their children 

Mr. Hakim has emerged as the central Iraqi Shiite who is backing a new bloc made
up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that would isolate more radical politicians. 
Americans back the new bloc, and Mr. Hakim traveled to Washington earlier this 
month to discuss its formation with Mr. Bush. It was not clear how the arrests, 
embarrassing to Mr. Hakim, would affect those political efforts.

Hiwa Osman, a news media adviser to Mr. Talabani, said, ³The president is 
unhappy with the arrests.² .

The politician familiar with the efforts said the Iranians in the compound had 
been in Iraq for four days. He said Iraqi officials expected that two more of 
the Iranians would be released soon.

The disagreement will further irritate relations between Prime Minister Nuri 
Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and his American supporters. The Shiite-led government 
has begun to chafe under the control of the Americans, pressing for more control
of its army and for greater independence from what it says is unilateral 
American decision making.

The Americans are concerned that the Shiite-led government would not respect the
rights of the minority Sunni Arab population, and, in the worst case, would use 
the largely Shiite security forces as a weapon in this country¹s deepening 
sectarian war.

Since the borders opened after the invasion, it has not been uncommon for 
Iranian pilgrims to visit Iraq. Many come to worship in religious places holy to

David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington, and
Nazila Fathi from Tehran.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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