Iraq frees 2 Iranians as Tehran hosts mothers of detained American hikers

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; 1:51 PM

TEHRAN -- Two Iranians held for years in Iraq were unexpectedly freed on Friday, Iranian news media reported, just as the mothers of three arrested American hikers in Iran were visiting Tehran in a quest for their release.

Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said the two Iranians had gone to neighboring Iraq on Shiite Muslim religious pilgrimages and were arrested by U.S. troops "on baseless charges and for not carrying passports," Iranian state television reported. He said the two "had been delivered to the Iraqi judiciary system" under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact and that Iraqi officials handed them over to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad on Friday.

Some Iranian analysts interpreted the move as a possible diplomatic gesture toward Iran that could increase the chances for the release of one or more of the detained American hikers. In Iraq, however, it was not immediately clear whether the decision to free the two men had anything to do with the case of the Americans, who were detained last summer after crossing into Iranian territory during what they said was a hiking expedition in the mountains of Iraq's Kurdistan region bordering Iran.

The three hikers -- Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend, Joshua Fattal, 27 -- have been held in Tehran's Evin prison. Iranian authorities have informally accused the trio of spying, an allegation their relatives strongly deny. No formal charges have been filed against the three since their arrest in late July.

On Friday, the mothers of the hikers met with family members of Iranian diplomats who were detained in Iraq in 2007, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported. It said that when those Iranian families were allowed to meet with the detainees at a U.S. base in Iraq, they were met with a "lack of facilities, unsuitable conditions and a security atmosphere."

U.S. troops captured five Iranians in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in January 2007 and accused them of being agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. They were held for two years before being turned over to Iraqi authorities and released.

Iranian officials said they allowed the American mothers to visit their children for "humanitarian" reasons. The reunion took place in one of Tehran's top hotels.

On Thursday, the three met with their mothers in an emotional reunion, parts of which were broadcast on Iranian state television.

The two Iranians released on Friday are Ahmed Barazandeh, who was arrested the Iraqi city of Najaf, and Ali Abdolmalek, who was picked up in Samarra, Kazemi-Qomi told Iranian state media.

He said they had been held in Baghdad under U.S. supervision on the basis of "groundless" accusations. He asserted that they had traveled to Iraq solely for religious pilgrimages and said they would leave for Tehran as soon as possible.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said Barazandeh was captured in March 2004 and turned over to the Iraqi government in June 2009, while Abdolmalek was taken into custody in November 2007 and handed over in October 2009. The military did not say why they were held or provide any other details.

A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Amir Arshadi, said the release had nothing to do with the three U.S. citizens held in Iran. He said the men were released after negotiations between the Iranian Embassy and the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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