U.S. Denies Hand in Iran Envoy's Capture

The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 6, 2007; 5:26 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It was just past sunset when a car carrying an Iranian diplomat was cruising through the streets of a leafy Shiite neighborhood. Suddenly, two cars filled with uniformed men blocked the way, forced him into a vehicle and sped off.

Jalal Sharafi's abduction Sunday evening threatens to escalate the tense standoff between Iran and the United States _ and could swell into a major diplomatic crisis for Iraq's fragile, Shiite-dominated government.

Iran has blamed the U.S. for the kidnapping _ or possibly arrest _ of Sharafi, a second secretary at the Iranian Embassy. Tehran said it holds the Americans responsible for his safety.

U.S. authorities deny any role in the disappearance. "We don't really know a whole lot about it at this point," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. "We know that the Iraqi government is investigating."

Publicly, the Iraqi government is saying as little as possible.

Suspicion also has fallen on a range of possible culprits _ Iraqi commandos, rogue elements in the security forces, Sunni insurgents or criminals seeking a big ransom.

Some Shiite lawmakers said the abduction was staged by an Iraqi commando unit that reports directly to the U.S. command _ an allegation strongly denied by U.S. spokesmen.

Details of the kidnapping remain murky, but one government official said it began when gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms blocked Sharafi's car in the Karradah district, forced him into one of their two vehicles and sped away.

Iraqi police then opened fire, disabling the second vehicle and arresting the four gunmen inside, the official said.

Police took the four to a police station. The next day, Iraqis in uniform appeared there, showed government badges and demanded the four suspects _ ostensibly to transfer them to another lockup, the official said.

The authorities complied, and the men disappeared. Spokesmen of both the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry, which together control Iraqi security forces, said they had no information and no idea where the suspects went.

Shiite lawmakers said they believed Sharafi was detained in an intelligence operation carried out by the Iraqi Special Operations Command, an elite unit under the direct supervision of the U.S. military.

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