By ANNE GEARAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 7:48 PM
WASHINGTON -- The brief detention of eight Iranian representatives in Iraq was "regrettable," a U.S. official said Wednesday as televised images of the handcuffed men complicated an increasingly tense diplomatic and military standoff with Iran.
Iran protested the detention through Switzerland, the neutral third party that passes messages between two nations estranged since 1979 and currently waging an undeclared proxy battle for influence in Iraq.
Videotape shot Tuesday night by AP Television News and widely aired on international television showed U.S. troops leading a group of blindfolded and handcuffed men out of a hotel in central Baghdad.
The State Department confirmed the protest but played down the incident, the latest in what U.S. officials insist is not a tit-for-tat series of detentions of U.S. and Iranian nationals, both in Iraq and in Iran.
"It's basically a closed incident," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey. "I don't really see how it will have any broader impact, either on U.S. relations, such as they are, with Iran, or general relations with Iraq."
Relations such as they are with Iran include what appear to be competing approaches and objectives on the U.S. side.
On one hand, the two nations have opened their highest-level public diplomatic talks since the U.S. broke off relations nearly three decades ago.
The periodic meetings of top U.S. and Iranian envoys in Baghdad are limited to the situation in Iraq, where Iran and the U.S. are the nations with the greatest influence. The U.S. has offered wider talks with preconditions the Iranians have refused, but U.S. officials have said that they are willing to reach out in hopes of improving the relationship.
At the same time, the Bush administration is leading an international effort to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran in hopes of getting the clerical regime to scale back what the U.S. claims is a covert nuclear weapons program. Iran says the program is peaceful.
It also applies indirect military pressure, including this spring's staging of multiple aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, in an implied challenge to Iran's expanding reach in the Middle East and its bellicose rhetoric against U.S. ally Israel.
U.S. officials deny there are any plans for war, but that possibility worries Mideast nations including Iraq.
The latest detentions in Baghdad followed strong language from President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday, with the U.S. leader accusing Iran of continued help for insurgents attacking U.S. forces in Iraq.
Until Iran stops doing so, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities," Bush said.
Hours earlier, Ahmadinejad warned that a power vacuum is imminent in Iraq and said Iran was ready to help fill the gap. "The political power of the occupiers is collapsing rapidly," Ahmadinejad said, referring to the U.S. military presence in Iraq more than four years after U.S. forces deposed Saddam Hussein.
Saadi Othman, an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told British Broadcasting Corp. television that the detentions were "regrettable" and had "nothing to do" with Bush's remarks.
The U.S. military said it detained the Iranian delegation after a checkpoint search found that some of their seven Iraqi guards were carrying unauthorized weapons. The Iranians were released early Wednesday after a search of their hotel rooms at a Baghdad Sheraton.
U.S. troops confiscated a laptop, cell phones and a briefcase full of Iranian and American money in the hotel, the military said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari told the British Broadcasting Corp. the Iranians were released after Iraqi officials intervened and told the Americans they were part of an official delegation on a legal visit to discuss electricity cooperation.