U.S. Frees 9 Iranians From Custody in Iraq

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 10, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 9 -- The U.S. military on Friday released nine Iranian citizens, including two described as diplomats, who had been held in American custody in Iraq for as long as three years.

U.S. military officials said the men were no longer considered a threat, but they did not elaborate. Iraqi officials said they did not have access to the men while they were in U.S. custody to judge independently their innocence or guilt but hoped the move would allow for more dialogue between Iran and the United States.

"Reducing this tension between Americans and Iranians is for the benefit of Iraq," said Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite legislator from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. "Definitely this will help."

The Iranians were suspected by U.S. officials of being members of the Quds Force, an arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. Their detention has been one of several points of dispute between the two countries. The U.S. military has repeatedly said that the Revolutionary Guard is involved in providing weapons and training for Shiite militias in Iraq. Although Iranian officials have denied those allegations, the U.S. military also says Iran has promised to crack down on any cross-border support to militants.

The U.S. military is expanding its efforts to stop weapons coming over the border from Iran. A new U.S. military outpost under construction less than five miles from the Iranian border, in southern Iraq's Wasit province, is scheduled to be completed next week. At the Zurbatia border crossing in that province, more than 1,000 people and hundreds of vehicles -- trucks carrying gravel, vegetables and other cargo, along with civilian cars -- pass into Iraq each day with relatively little oversight. Iran has recently agreed to create a neutral site at the border crossing so guards from both countries can work together to search the cargo.

"Up until the last six months, we did not have the ability to search trucks," said Col. Mark Mueller, the leader of the U.S. military unit working with Iraqi border guards in Wasit province. "We're making a lot of headway in those areas, but it's big. It's not going to be solved overnight."

Iranian officials described the release of the nine detainees as an admission by the United States that they were innocent of any wrongdoing. Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, called on the United States to "free the remaining Iranians without any hesitation," according to an Iranian news agency. Eleven Iranians remain in U.S. custody in Iraq.

Two of the most controversial detainees freed were Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh, who were among five Iranians captured by U.S. troops Jan. 11 during a raid on an Iranian liaison office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Iran has said that the men are diplomats and that the site was recognized by the Iraqi government as a legitimate consular office.

The circumstances of the capture of the seven other detainees, taken into custody as early as Nov. 20, 2004, were described briefly in a military statement. Two were captured in a raid "to disrupt al-Qaeda operations in Iraq" and one during an "intelligence-driven raid aimed at capturing a senior insurgent." At least two were captured in western Anbar province: one while allegedly fleeing the scene of a mortar attack in Fallujah, the other during a raid in Ramadi. A sixth Iranian citizen was detained at an unspecified border checkpoint, and the seventh was taken into custody in Qadisiyah in southern Iraq for "illegal entry into Iraq from Iran," according to the military's statement.

More than 30 people were killed Friday as fresh violence broke out across Iraq, police said. In one of the deadliest incidents, a suicide bomber attacked a gathering of Sunni tribal leaders in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company