By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
The United States will release nine of 20 Iranians captured in Iraq on the grounds that they no longer threaten American or Iraqi forces, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith said in Baghdad yesterday. But the U.S. military will continue to detain 11 other Iranians, including the highest-ranking or "most troubling," and three detained in a controversial U.S. raid in the northern city of Irbil in January, a senior U.S. official said.
All 20 detainees are known or suspected members of Iran's elite Quds Force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for Iran's foreign operations and recently sanctioned by the Bush administration as a supporter of terrorism, the officials said. Until yesterday, the United States had acknowledged holding only eight Iranians.
The status of the captured Iranians is so diplomatically and militarily sensitive that it has been reviewed by the White House. President Bush was briefed on the decision, which was made on the recommendation of military officials after weeks of deliberation, U.S. sources said.
The move follows a recent pledge by Iran to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop arming, funding and training extremists in Iraq. It also comes at a critical juncture in the standoff between Washington and Tehran over Iran's suspected nuclear program, its intervention in Iraq and its resupply of arms to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military also briefed reporters on about 5,300 weapons caches discovered by U.S. and Iraqi forces this year -- twice the number found in all of 2006 and much of the material from Iran, Smith said. The caches include roadside bomb components, rockets, mortars, C4 explosives, land mines and rocket-propelled grenades.
Smith noted that the two latest caches appear to have arrived before Iran's assurances to Iraq. "We hope in the coming weeks and months to confirm that Iran has indeed honored its pledge through further verification that the flow of munitions and other lethal aid has stopped," he said.
U.S. officials also said that they expect a new round of U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad this month between mid-level diplomats, possibly followed by a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors. The talks had been put on hold since summer because of the earlier lack of progress.
A senior Iraqi official said the Iranians' release reflects growing recognition that Iran has been playing a less provocative role in Iraq recently, evident in fewer U.S. deaths caused by roadside bombs and in restraint by Shiite militias on U.S. targets.
"There is wide acceptance of the notion that over the past month or two, they have been less problematic in Iraq," he said.
Last month, 18 U.S. troops were killed by roadside bombs, more than a 50 percent decline from the same month last year, when 37 died from materiel linked to Iranian suppliers, the U.S. military said. The U.S. death toll has also abated since radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been in Iran for much of this year, ordered his forces in August to stop attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops for as long as six months.
The administration is reserving judgment. "If Iran is changing its strategy and trying to play a productive role in Iraq, then we'd welcome that, and we hope to see that," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "But we think it's too early to tell whether Iran is willing to play a more constructive role inside Iraq. They have made pledges before.
"These Iranians were released because they were no longer of intelligence value, nor did they pose continued risk, and so it was decided in Baghdad that they should be released and returned to Iran," he said.
The decision to release nine Iranians reflects a shift. Last month, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said he would urge that the five Iranians captured in Irbil not be freed.
"Militarily, we should hold on to them," he told reporters and editors at The Washington Post on Oct. 5. But last week, Odierno said there had been a sharp decline in one type of roadside bomb, known as an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, that can shatter the steel of armored Humvees.
Three of the Iranians who will remain in U.S. custody were among five picked up during the raid in Irbil in January. Iran and Iraq said the raid was on a recognized Iranian diplomatic facility. The United States will also not release Mahmudi Farhudi, who was recently captured on charges of importing Iranian arms to Iraq. U.S. officials allege that he is a senior Quds Force commander.
Correspondent Amit Paley in Baghdad contributed to this report.