By Sudarsan Raghavan and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 30, 2006
BAGHDAD, Dec. 29 -- Two senior Iranian operatives who were detained by U.S. forces in Iraq and were strongly suspected of planning attacks against American military forces and Iraqi targets were expelled to Iran on Friday, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The decision to free the men was made by the Iraqi government and has angered U.S. military officials who say the operatives were seeking to foment instability here.
"These are really serious people," said one U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were the target of a very focused raid based on intelligence, and it would be hard for one to believe that their activities weren't endorsed by the Iranian government. It's a situation that is obviously troubling."
One of the commanders, identified by officials simply as Chizari, was the third-highest-ranking official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade, the unit most active in aiding, arming and training groups outside Iran, including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, U.S. officials said. The other commander was described as equally significant to Iran's support of foreign militaries but not as high-ranking.
American military forces nabbed the two men in raids last week. Their capture, U.S. officials said, represents the strongest evidence yet that Tehran's Shiite theocracy is meddling in Iraq's affairs and strengthening its relationship with the government in Baghdad.
U.S. defense officials familiar with the raids said the captured Iranians had detailed weapons lists, documents pertaining to shipments of weapons into Iraq, organizational charts, telephone records and maps, among other sensitive intelligence information. Officials were particularly concerned by the fact that the Iranians had information about importing modern, specially shaped explosive charges into Iraq, weapons that have been used in roadside bombs to target U.S. military armored vehicles.
Shaped charges focus the energy of a blast, allowing shrapnel to burst through vehicles, sometimes even if they are heavily armored. U.S. military officials have long said they believed Iran was responsible for sending such weapons -- along with others, such as advanced sniper rifles -- into Iraq to help insurgents and militia groups.
"The evidence shows that they were exactly up to the things our suspicions indicated," said one U.S. defense official.
Adding to the political sensitivity of the situation, the two men were detained while inside the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of the most powerful Shiite leaders in Iraq. The Bush administration is hoping Hakim can build a moderate coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties that can bring national reconciliation to a fractured Iraq.
The Iraqi government decided to honor Tehran's claims that the two detainees had diplomatic immunity. U.S. officials had argued that although the men had diplomatic passports, they were operating under aliases and therefore not immune.
Despite their frustration at the release of the Iranians, U.S. officials said a strong message has been sent to Iran that its operatives will be tracked down and that it will be held accountable for its activities in Iraq.
"Iranians have been pushing the envelope in Iraq and elsewhere, and it's a good thing they learn there are consequences," a U.S. official said, on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials said they now had a treasure trove of data from computers and documents and the lists of weaponry recently shipped to Iraq.
"The materials they had will factor into additional planning for operations and will likely be very helpful," said a U.S. defense official. "But with weapons and advanced IEDs [improvised explosive devices] coming into the country, we've identified a major problem."
In a raid last week, U.S. forces stopped a vehicle in central Baghdad and detained three Iranians and one Iraqi, said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. Those detained had legitimate diplomatic credentials and were released.
In a second raid, U.S. forces entered Hakim's compound and detained 10 men, including Chizari and the other al-Quds commander. The eight other men were Iraqis, U.S. officials said.
According to a Bush administration official, Chizari or the other commander gave up his identity when talking to the Americans. The U.S. forces apparently were not aware whom they had caught, the official said.
Although the men were captured in Hakim's compound, U.S. officials said Hakim cooperated with the American military operation.
The raids deeply angered officials in the Iraqi government, which is hoping that building ties with Iran could help stem the violence in Iraq. They set in motion a flurry of diplomatic moves to secure the release of the two men.
"The story the Americans said is not true," said Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament and a close adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "They said these were military men with diplomatic status. But they failed to prove anything."
"Iraq is trying to have a solid relationship with its neighbors."
Iran has been providing arms and aid to the two largest Shiite political parties, Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa party, as well as renegade leader Moqtada al-Sadr and Shiite militias, U.S. officials say. The officials are sorting through the evidence to link the material and intelligence to attacks on U.S. forces. SCIRI and Dawa politicians have said Iran does not back them now.
Last month, Hakim met with President Bush and other administration officials. He said that his Badr Organization militia, which was formed in Iran, no longer operated as an independent militia and that SCIRI no longer received military aid from Iran.
Some U.S. officials on Friday saw the decision by Iraq to expel the two men as a positive development that reflected Iraq's independence.
Staff writers Josh White and Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.