BAGHDAD — The U.S. military Thursday freed five Iranians who had been held since 2007 on suspicion of aiding Shiite Muslim militants, handing them over to the Iraqi government before their planned departure for Iran.
In a move likely to ease friction between Tehran and Washington at least on the issue of Iraq, the five were received by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki at his office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone before being handed over to the Iranian Embassy in the evening. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he had met with the Iranians and described them as "happy and safe."
He said no deal had been struck for their release, which he said came about as a result of the security agreement between the United States and Iraq signed in December. Under the deal, which saw American forces withdraw from Iraqi cities last week, the U.S. is to hand over all detainees to the Iraqi government by the end of the year.
"There wasn't any deal," Zebari said. "This has been there for some time that this would happen. It was part of the agreement for the Americans, part of withdrawing and handing over security responsibilities."
In a brief statement, the U.S. military also said the five had been freed under the terms of the accord.
Still, it was unclear why the Iranians were being freed now. The U.S. has been releasing detainees steadily since the accord took effect in January, and it has until year's end to free the remaining 10,000 or so.
The five Iranians, said by Tehran to be diplomats, were detained in January 2007 in the northern city of Irbil at the height of tensions between the U.S. and Iran over influence in Iraq. The U.S. military subsequently said the men were not diplomats but members of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and accused them of arming, funding and training Shiite militias in Iraq.
Relations in Iraq between the U.S. and Iran improved somewhat after a series of talks, and two other Iranians detained in Baghdad were freed. But the continued detention of the five remained a source of friction between Tehran and Washington.
The detentions also strained U.S. relations with Maliki's government, which has friendly ties with Iran and maintained that the five Iranians were in the process of setting up a liaison office when they were seized.
President Obama has promised to further improve relations with Tehran by pursuing dialogue, but the prospects of a thaw have been diminished by Iran's crackdown on demonstrators protesting last month's disputed presidential election.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed contributed to this report.