U.S. highlights Iran-meddling charge in Iraq

By Jim Wolf
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 1:12 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration said on Monday the arrest in Iraq of alleged Iranian provocateurs, including two diplomats, underscored U.S. concerns about "meddling" amid rising U.S.-Iranian strains.

U.S.-led forces detained the Iranians during operations "against those planning and plotting attacks against multinational forces, Iraqi forces and Iraqi citizens," the State Department said.

"In the course of those operations, multinational forces recently picked up groups of individuals involved in these kinds of activities, including Iranians operating inside Iraq," it said.

U.S. military and civilian officials in Baghdad and Washington did not respond to questions about any evidence the arrested Iranians were plotting attacks.

"We suspect this event validates our claim about Iranian meddling," said Alex Conant, a White House spokesman, "but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities."

"We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger picture after we finish our investigation," he added in an e-mailed reply to questions from Reuters.

Two of the Iranians arrested had diplomatic credentials, Conant said. He said they were handed to the Iraqi government which released them to the Iranian government.

Details of the arrests were sketchy. The New York Times, which first reported the arrests on Sunday, said the Iranians were picked up in a pair of raids in central Baghdad late last week.

At least four Iranians were still being held by the U.S. military, including some described as senior military officials, the paper said.

The arrests were highly sensitive for the three governments involved as tensions have risen over Iran's nuclear program and its support for hard-line, anti-U.S. forces in the Middle East.

On Saturday, UnderSecretary of State Nicholas Burns called for an end to "business as usual" with Iran to bolster U.N. Security Council sanctions adopted earlier in the day aimed at rolling back Iran's nuclear program.

Iran, along with Syria, has been undermining "the government of Iraq's political process by providing both active and passive support to anti-government and anti-Coalition forces," the U.S. Defense Department said in its latest quarterly report to Congress, released last Monday.

"Eliminating the smuggling of materiel and foreign fighters into Iraq is a critical task and a formidable challenge," the Pentagon said.

Earlier this month, Pentagon officials said they were weighing a request from the command responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East to send a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf area, partly to deter Iran from "provocative" actions.

Full Legal Notice
© 2006 Reuters