By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 5, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 4 -- The U.S. military has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit five Iranian officials who were detained in Iraq nearly three months ago on suspicion of plotting against American and Iraqi forces.
A Red Cross delegation that included one Iranian citizen visited the detainees, and a request for a formal consular visit with them is "being assessed at this time" by the U.S. military, said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
In a briefing for reporters Wednesday, Caldwell did not say when the visit took place or whether it was connected to the case of the 15 British sailors and marines detained by Iran on March 23; Iran subsequently announced that they would be released.
The Iraqi government has called for the release of the five Iranians, who were captured during a U.S. military raid in January on an office providing consular services in the Kurdish city of Irbil.
A spokeswoman for the ICRC, Dorothea Krimitsas, confirmed that her organization had visited the Iranian officials but declined to provide details. In general, she said, such inspections involve multiple visits, and information about the detainees' treatment is discussed privately with the "detaining authorities."
News of the visit came a day after the Iraqi government confirmed that an Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who was abducted Feb. 4 in downtown Baghdad by people dressed in military uniforms, had been freed. The back-to-back developments raised questions about whether they were connected to the diplomatic crisis involving Britain and Iran. U.S. and Iraqi officials denied that Sharafi's release was related.
During an international conference held in Baghdad in March, Iranian representatives discussed the issue of the five detainees with Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador, and "there were promises to solve it in a friendly way," Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told reporters Wednesday in Baghdad.
"We don't want these relations to affect the situation in Iraq," he said.
The Americans have accused the Iranians of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's al-Quds Force, which is said to be active in arming and training militant movements in the Middle East. At the time of their capture, the Iranians were without passports and attempting to flush documents down a toilet, U.S. officials have said.
In a separate development Wednesday, two members of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc in the Iraqi parliament were said to be removed from the powerful political alliance because they held meetings with Americans, according to the head of Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
Nasar al-Rubaie, a leader of the 30-person alliance of Shiite lawmakers loyal to Sadr, said that the two legislators, Salam al-Maliki and Qusay Abdul Wahab, violated "clear instructions" by meeting with the unspecified Americans.
"If there is any kind of meeting between someone and the occupation, he will be rejected by Moqtada al-Sadr himself," Rubaie said.
But both Wahab and Maliki, a former transportation minister, emphatically denied that they had met with Americans or that they had been removed from the Sadr bloc. "This is a fabrication and completely untrue," Wahab said in an interview. "What was said by some of the powerful people in the Sadr trend isn't accurate and its aim is to split the lines of the Sadr trend through these rumors and accusations."
Some American officials contend that Sadr's organization has fractured, following speculation that the cleric retreated to Iran and left his followers without decisive leadership. The mayor of the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Rahim al-Darraji, was attacked by gunmen last month after meeting with U.S. military officials.
Sami al-Askari, a Shiite member of parliament who works closely with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said that the accusations against the two Sadr officials may be a convenient excuse to purge two members who have been at odds with others in the bloc. But he doubted Sadr was losing control.
"There are always differences between different factions but nevertheless Moqtada Sadr is the leader of this movement," he said.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. military said that an American soldier had been killed by small-arms fire in the southern outskirts of Baghdad while on a foot patrol Tuesday.
An engineer and four technicians working at the Mulla Abdullah power plant southwest of Kirkuk were killed when their car was struck by a roadside bomb, according to Maj. Abdul Jabbar al-Jubury of the Hawijah police station.
In southern Iraq, gunmen riding in pickup trucks kidnapped 22 shepherds in the Rufaiaa district near Karbala, an Interior Ministry official said. Meanwhile, 19 decapitated bodies arrived for burial in the southern city of Najaf, which is revered by Shiites. Religious officials in Najaf said the men were executed in a village in Diyala province because they were Shiites.
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Waleed Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.