(CNSNews.com) – Five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq more than two years ago and suspected of facilitating deadly attacks against U.S. troops were handed over to Iraqi authorities Thursday and looked set to be heading home.
The U.S. military turned the five over to the Iraqis in line with a bilateral security agreement, despite continuing concerns about the safety of American forces.
The State Department denied that their handover was linked in any way to the Obama administration’s policy of seeking to engage Tehran, or to the case of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, found guilty of espionage by an Iranian court in April and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, but freed the following month.
“We are doing this consistent with our obligations under the security agreement [with Iraq],” department spokesman Ian Kelly told a briefing Thursday. “There’s no other deal or any prisoner exchange or anything like that involved in this.”
Kelly confirmed the U.S. understanding that the five were associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s Qods Force, “which has been involved in training and supporting Iraqi militant groups.”
He acknowledged that the security concerns remained, and said the U.S. had made those concerns clear to the Iraqi government.
Nonetheless, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told the IRIB state broadcaster that the five were now free and would return home soon. He disclosed that they had met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and said they would be handed over to the Iranian Embassy within hours.
Tehran says the five, who were captured in Arbil in January 2007, are “diplomats” who were “abducted” when U.S. forces attacked an “Iranian consulate office.” They have been named as Mohsen Baqeri, Mahmoud Farhadi, Majid Qaemi, Majid Daqeri and Abbas Jami. Iranian consular officials and the Red Cross have had access to them.
Iran has frequently brought up their continued detention, and earlier this year the government suggested their release would be a sign of the “change” promised by the Obama administration.
The handover of detainees to Iraqi custody is an obligation in the security agreement signed late last year and which entered into force on January 1 – the same agreement under which U.S. combat forces also withdrew from Iraqi cities by the end of last month.
Unlike the troop pullback, however, the portion of the agreement pertaining to detainees does not stipulate a target date or deadline for their handover. It states merely that U.S. and Iraqi authorities are to coordinate the safe and orderly release of all detainees held by the U.S. or the transfer to Iraqi custody of those detainees who are wanted pursuant to a valid Iraqi arrest warrant.
There also appears to be a loophole which could have allowed the Iraqis to ensure the five Iranians remained in custody: The agreement says the U.S. will free or hand over all detainees, “unless otherwise requested by the Government of Iraq and in accordance with Article 4 of this Agreement.” Article 4 deals with occasions on which Iraq may ask the U.S. for security assistance, such as in conducting operations against terrorists or “remnants of the former regime.”
Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki complained that Baghdad was not doing enough to speed up the release of the five: “We are indeed disappointed with Iraq’s failure in freeing the Iranian diplomats and facilitating their return home.”
On Sunday, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, took up the matter at a meeting with Maliki.
“The prime minister noted that he had had talks with U.S. officials and they announced their readiness to hand over the diplomats to the Iraqi officials and administrative procedures are already underway,“ Qomi said afterwards.
Kelly said Thursday the Iraqis had produced arrest warrants for all third-country detainees, including the five Iranians. “And because this is very important to us that we keep to our obligations, we handed them over.”
Arbil (Irbil), Iraq’s third-largest city, is located in the Kurdish autonomous region.
The U.S. raid there in the early hours of January 11, 2007, came just hours after President Bush in a policy speech – the one in which he laid out the troop surge strategy – vowed to block the “flow of support” to terrorists from Iran and Syria, and to “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
Shortly after the raid, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, without commenting directly on the incident, warned that Iranian meddling in Iraq “is not going to be tolerated.”
Tehran accused the U.S. of violating international law by entering a consulate and arresting its citizens, but State Department spokesmen said none of those detained held diplomatic passports and that the Arbil office had no diplomatic status.
“We have both had confirmation from the Iraqi and the Iranian government for that matter that this was not a diplomatic facility, it did not have the standing of a consulate nor did it have any other international diplomatic standing to speak of,” spokesman Tom Casey said the day after the arrests.
Gen. George Casey, the then Multi National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) commander, was unapologetic: “I don’t think there's any disagreement on the fact that these folks that we have captured are foreign intelligence agents in this country, working with Iraqis to destabilize Iraq and target coalition forces that are here at Iraq’s request,” he said in Baghdad on January 15.
The IGRC, established in 1979 to “defend the Islamic revolution,” operates alongside Iran’s regular military and has significant influence. Its Qods (Jerusalem) Force is responsible for sponsoring special operations abroad. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former member.
According to the State Department, the Qods Force’s involvement in Iraq included the provision of “lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi militant groups that targeted coalition and Iraqi forces and killed innocent Iraqi civilians.”
A major problem for coalition forces, particularly from 2005 on, was the use by insurgents of roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and especially the shaped charges designed to overcome armored vehicle protection. Known as “explosively formed penetrators” or EFPs, they are reportedly similar to ones used by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.
“I can say with certainty that the Qods force, a part of the Iranian government, has provided these sophisticated IEDs that have harmed our troops,” President Bush said in his first press conference of 2007, a month after the Arbil raid.
In July of that year, the U.S. military in Iraq reported the capture of suspects with “direct ties” to the Qods Force.
“The captured suspected terrorists are believed to be key players in a major facilitation network for smuggling weapons and components of EFPs from Iran into Iraq to be used against coalition forces,” MNF-I said in a statement.
Although the number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the troop surge took hold in mid-2007, the proportion of deaths attributable to IEDs remains high.
Of the 30 months since January 2007, the proportion of monthly combat deaths blamed on IEDs fell below 50 percent only eight times, and below 40 percent only three times, according to a Cybercast News Service database of U.S. military casualties in Iraq. (see graph)
Detainee releases continue
Since Jan. 1, U.S. forces have released 3,794 detainees and transferred to Iraqi custody nearly 700 detainees, after receiving more than 800 arrest warrants or detention orders, according to MNF-I.
Detainees who are released take part beforehand in a public ceremony where they are take an oath of good citizenship and renounce violence. The released detainees are required to check in regularly with Iraqi police, and a reintegration program includes vocational training and employment.
In mid-June, the number of detainees held had dropped below 11,000, the lowest it had been since 2005.
Detainees still being held are roughly divided among three facilities – Camp Bucca, near Iraq’s border with Kuwait; Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport, where Saddam Hussein was held; and Camp Taji, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Bucca, which now has some 3,300 detainees, down from a high of 22,000 in late 2007, is scheduled to close in September. Taji will be handed to the Iraqis early next year, and Cropper in August 2010.