By LOLITA C. BALDOR
The Associated Press
Thursday, April 5, 2007; 5:33 PM
WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Iraqi officials are working to give Iran access to the five Iranians detained by American forces in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
He did not link the move to Iran's release of 15 British troops after nearly two weeks of captivity.
In the first detailed discussion of the plan by a senior U.S. official, Gates said the U.S. has no intention of releasing the five Iranian prisoners. They were captured during a January raid in northern Iraq.
The Pentagon chief said a consular visit by Iranian officials is not being considered.
"It's my understanding that the consular access is not required but, also, that Iraqi government officials and U.S. officials are discussing if there's some way, perhaps, that there could be some kind of Iranian access to them," Gates told Pentagon reporters during a briefing. He said he did not discuss the matter with the British government.
Gates did not say who would be allowed to see the detainees. An international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, already visited the prisoners.
Gates' comments came as the Bush administration accused Iran of using hostage diplomacy to boost its status.
With the Royal Navy troops safely back on British soil, the White House and the State Department changed the nature of comments that deliberately had been toned down during the captivity. U.S. officials maintained their insistence that there is no connection between the Iraq incidents and the capture or release of the Royal Navy sailors.
Iranian forces seized a British ship and 15 crew members on March 23 in the Persian Gulf, saying the sailors had crossed into Iranian waters. British and U.S. officials insist the ship was in Iraqi waters.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Washington saw no sign that Tehran was now willing to work with other countries as well as the U.N. Security Council, which has demanded that Iran scale back its nuclear programs.
"What would show that they're more in line with the international community is to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution," he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the incident was part of an Iranian pattern of taking hostages that dates to the seizure of 52 Americans in 1979 and includes a 2004 incident in which Iran captured and held a group of British sailors.
"This is clearly a regime that, after several decades, continues to view hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy," McCormack told reporters.
Johndroe said President Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a lengthy video conference Thursday and told Blair he was pleased the 15 had returned home. Bush is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The U.S. military has said the five Iranians were part of a Revolutionary Guard force that provides money, weapons and training to Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran says the detainees were engaged exclusively in consular work.
Gates said he has asked his military commanders to review their procedures to make sure that U.S. sailors are protected against a similar attempt at capture, and that U.S. ships are operating "well within the baselines, just like the British were."
In other comments, Gates said that he is expecting that U.S. commanders in Iraq will give him an assessment by late summer on how the military buildup is working. Close to 30,000 additional U.S. troops are being sent to Iraq to quell the violence in Baghdad and give the government time to stabilize. About half have arrived, according to the military.
Faced with increasing pressure from Congress to reduce troop levels in Iraq, Gates said it is too soon to tell when that can happen.
"I think people don't know right now how long this will last," he said. "I believe that the thinking of those involved in the process was that it would be a period of months, not a period of years or a year and a half."
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Ben Feller in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.