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U.S. lets Iranian envoys visit detained compatriots in Iraq

July 08, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Despite continuing tensions between Washington and Tehran, five Iranians in U.S. military custody in Iraq since January received their first visit Saturday from Iranian diplomats.

The meeting took place at a U.S. military facility in or near Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Times.

"We've been working on this for quite some time, to organize a consular visit for the Iranian Embassy to visit their detainees with the U.S. military," Zebari said. "I think it's a good gesture."

The five Iranians were picked up on suspicion of spying in a Jan. 11 raid in the Kurdish city of Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad.

Iran has contended that the five men are diplomats and said when they were detained that they worked at a liaison office that it was seeking to upgrade to a consulate.

U.S. officials said the five Iranians did not identify themselves as diplomats when they were detained, and did not have diplomatic credentials.

The U.S. military has said the five belong to the Quds Force, an elite covert unit of the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard. Iran has denied the charge.

Some U.S. and Iraqi officials said last month that the five detainees could be released soon, but until now the Americans had refused Iran's request for a meeting with the prisoners.

Zebari said Iraq had been working to arrange the meeting since March when the U.S. and Iran participated in regional talks in Baghdad on Iraqi security.

On Saturday morning, a U.S. military unit picked up Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, and two other diplomats at Iraq's Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, and took them to see the detainees, Zebari said.

"It was a courtesy extended by Multi-National Forces-Iraq in response to a request by the Iranian government," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker.

But Reeker said the visit did not indicate any progress had been made toward holding a second meeting between the United States and Iran after the May 28 talks on Iraq in Baghdad.

Kazemi-Qomi, the Iranian ambassador, told Iran's Arabic-language Al Alam television that his delegation met for five hours with the five men and said their morale was high. He demanded that the United States free them immediately.

There was no indication from either American or Iraqi officials of when the detainees might be released.

In addition to tensions over Iran's nuclear program, Washington accuses Tehran of arming insurgents who are attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.

U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner last week accused the Quds Force and the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of arming and training Iraqi Shiite militants. Iran and Hezbollah denied the charges.


Times staff writer Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

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