MANAMA, BAHRAIN, SEPT. 26 -- The United States today turned over to Iran 26 Iranian seamen captured in a U.S. attack on their mine-laying vessel as questions were raised here whether some of the sailors who cooperated with U.S. Navy mine-hunters had sought to remain outside Iran.
U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Sam H. Zakhem told reporters tonight that he believed that, if given the chance, some of the crewmen of the Iran Ajr would have sought political asylum in the West. But, he added, no State Department personnel responsible for handling requests for asylum had access to the Iranians while they were in U.S. Navy custody.
The Navy command in charge of the 11-ship Middle East Force in the Persian Gulf did not want to deal with "political matters" regarding the detainees, one U.S. official said.
"I think the military consciously stayed away from that," Zakhem told a group of reporters earlier in the day.
Unconfirmed reports -- attributed to U.S. sailors in the naval flotilla anchored in international waters near here -- said that at least two of the Iranian seamen had requested political asylum.
The State Department denied the reports. A department spokesman in Washington said, "We have no information regarding any request from any of the detainees" for asylum.
A State Department official in Washington suggested that some of the Iranians may have made comments suggesting that it would be nice to leave Iran but, for considerations of family left behind, they felt they had to return.
"All of the detainees returned willingly," the State Department spokesman said. "None of them expressed a desire to remain." The spokesman noted that a representative of the International Red Cross supervised the transfer of the seamen from U.S. to Iranian custody at the Seeb airfield in Oman just after noon today.
The notion that some of the Iranian sailors had raised the question of political asylum may have been fed by public remarks by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. He said the Iran Ajr crew had cooperated fully with U.S. Navy officials in explaining the details of the ship's mine-laying mission and helping Navy mine-hunters pinpoint the location of the nine mines that were rolled off the Iranian vessel prior to the attack.
In another development, sources here shed new light today on the bureaucratic battle that erupted last Monday night when an Army special operations helicopter opened fired and disabled the Iran Ajr as it was discovered laying mines in an anchorage used by U.S. warships north of Qatar.
The sources said senior officials in the State Department notified the U.S. Embassy in Manama that they intended to release the captured Iranians and their ship to an Iranian tug boat at the scene of the attack.
Zakhem, the sources said, argued forcefully that the United States should hold the Iranians as prisoners, possibly using them as bargaining leverage to win the release of U.S. and western hostages held in Lebanon.
In addition, the sources said Zakhem wanted the Navy to keep the bodies of the Iranian seamen killed in the attack to deny Iran the propaganda value of parading their coffins through the streets of Tehran as martyrs.
The ambassador's suggestion to the Navy, according to sources, was to scuttle the Iran Ajr immediately and send the bodies of the dead crewmen to the bottom of the gulf aboard the vessel.
The State Department response, according to the sources, was that the United States could not stoop to the tactics of "international outlaws" in holding Iranians hostage.
In addition, the department was concerned, the sources said, that holding the Iranians for any length of time would make them prisoners of war at a time when President Reagan was asserting to Congress that the U.S. mission in the gulf did not constitute warfare and, therefore, did not call into play the War Powers Act.
The act requires congressional approval for presidential deployments of forces in areas where the forces are in jeopardy.
Sources today also revealed new details of last Monday's attack, saying the Navy task force in the gulf monitored the Iran Ajr from the time it left its port in Iran to the moment of the attack 12 hours later.
Sources said that of the five Iranians who died in the attack on the ship, one was on the bridge returning fire in the direction of the attacking U.S. helicopter; another was killed when a rocket hit drums of paint near him and "blew him to bits;" a third died in the engine room from rocket shrapnel; and a fourth, described only as a half-naked "boy," was chased down by the helicopter as he attempted to flee the ship in an motorized rubber dinghy. The helicopter pursued the dinghy and sprayed the fleeing seaman with gatling-gun fire.
The body of the fleeing Iranian and that of one other Iranian crewmen were not recovered, the sources said. Previously the Pentagon said no fire was returned from the ship.
According to these sources, Navy officials had warned the Iranians through unspecified channels that U.S. forces would open fire without warning on any vessel caught laying mines in the gulf.
Just two days before the attack, the sources said Marine Gen. George B. Crist, head of the U.S. Central Command, in charge of the U.S. mission in the gulf, had told his subordinates, "If you see them laying mines, blow their asses."