BAGHDAD — Iraq has appealed to Iran to free three American hikers after concluding that the trio who apparently strayed across the Iranian border were just lost tourists, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday.
Zebari said he had heard no word from the Iranians since making the request during a meeting with Iran's ambassador to Iraq last week. But he hoped for an answer in the coming days, he said.
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30 and Joshua Fattal, 27, have been in Iranian custody since they crossed into the country July 31 while hiking through a mountainous area of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region. All three are UC Berkeley graduates who were on an extended trip in the Middle East.
The White House said Sunday that it had received the first official confirmation from Tehran that the three were being held.
The administration has "sent strong messages that we'd like these three young people released as soon as possible," national security advisor James L. Jones told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Though Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman had already confirmed the arrests, Washington doesn't have diplomatic ties with Iran and had been seeking formal confirmation.
In a meeting Wednesday, Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi confirmed to Zebari that the three had been arrested for entering Iran without visas and were being interviewed to ascertain "what their mission really was," according to Zebari.
Zebari told him that Iraq had made its own inquiries and concluded that the Americans were on a vacation and had blundered across the border because they weren't familiar with the area.
"They entered the country without knowledge of the terrain," he said. "From the way we studied the case, and the way they were wandering round without maps, we think this was not something serious.
"They were here in our country and this is why on a humanitarian basis we asked for their release," he added.
Should Iran decide to accuse the Americans of spying, as North Korea did when journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling crossed into its territory, the incident has the potential to further raise tensions between Tehran and Washington and thwart the Obama administration's outreach efforts.
The timing of the incident is highly sensitive, with Iran recently accusing the West of seeking to foment political unrest after Iran's disputed presidential election in June. Some Iranians have already voiced suspicions about what Americans were doing wandering into Iran at such a time, and one Iranian lawmaker has said they were "definitely spies."
Bauer, Shourd and Fattal had all worked as freelance journalists at some point, and identified themselves as such to their hotel in the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniya. But a fourth member of the group, who stayed behind at the hotel because he had a cold, said they had all gone to northern Iraq "for a short vacation" after a friend raved about its beauty.
In a statement published by the magazines Mother Jones and the Nation, Shon Meckfessel said they had not realized that the border was in the vicinity. Many Kurds in the town of Sulaymaniya recommended that they go to the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a popular picnic spot, but "not one of these people mentioned that Ahmed Awa was anywhere near the Iranian border," he said.
"There is no Lonely Planet Iraqi Kurdistan and Ahmed Awa was not on the map we'd printed out," he added. "My sense, wrongly as it turned out, was that Ahmed Awa lay northwest of Sulaymaniya" instead of southeast, the direction of the Iranian border.
In fact, the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guide to the Middle East, published in May, has a chapter on Kurdistan, in which Ahmed Awa is featured. Kurdistan is a self-governing region of Iraq that is considered safe, and it has been trying to promote itself as an unspoiled tourist destination.
Though the guide does not specifically mention that the area is adjacent to the Iranian border, the introduction warns hikers in Kurdistan not to stray off the beaten track because of dangers from Kurdish guerrillas and because the border is not clearly marked. Kurdish officials say the three apparently hiked far beyond the waterfall and into Iranian territory.
Meckfessel said he received a call from Bauer telling him to contact the embassy because the three were being detained.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.