Iranian ambassador says Iranians detained by U.S. could be freed next week
By Scheherezade Faramarzi
3:25 p.m. March 14, 2007
BAGHDAD – Five Iranians detained during a U.S.-led raid in northern Iraq in January could be released as early as next week
, Iran's ambassador said Wednesday.
Hassan Kazemi Qomi said U.S. officials had informed Iranian delegates at a weekend security conference here that they were in “the final stage” of the investigation into the case. Qomi said he hoped the five could be released before the Iranian New Year, which falls on March 21.
The U.S. military said the five Iranians, who were arrested in the northern city of Irbil, were part of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard force
that provides funds, weapons and training to Shiite militias in Iraq. Two days after the raid, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront Tehran.
Iran had insisted that the five detained Iranians were engaged exclusively in consular work.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman on Wednesday referred all questions about the detained Iranians to the State Department, while a State Department official said reporters should ask the Pentagon about the matter.
The release of the Iranians could pave the way for more cooperation between Tehran and Washington on stabilizing Iraq. Delegates of the two nations held their first direct talks in years at a weekend conference in Baghdad on resolving the crisis in the country, although U.S. and Iraqi leaders remain skeptical of Iran's commitment of support.
On Sunday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said intelligence reports indicated weapons were flowing into Iraq from Iran. He said the Iranians “need to match their statement of support for the Iraqi government with actions and words on the ground.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Qomi said any effort to stabilize Iraq would succeed only after the U.S. hands over the country's intelligence and security services to “an empowered and sovereign” Iraqi government – led now by Shiite religious parties with ties to Iran.
Without such a hand-over, he said, “the government cannot structure its defense and security to tackle the threats it faces,” nor can it build relations with neighboring countries.
“We believe an empowered government here will be able to fight terrorism and play a role in regional security,” Qomi said.
He dismissed allegations than Iran has become a major arms supplier to Shiite extremists.
“To those who make such allegations, I say, where is your evidence?” Qomi said. “Frankly, they (Shiite groups) don't need our weapons and the Islamic Republic of Iran has not given them weapons.”
He added: “Why should we give them weapons if we believe insecurity in Iraq only prolongs the presence of the occupation forces?”
Qomi said Iran will continue to control its long border with Iraq to make sure no weapons or extremists infiltrate the country. He said that since the beginning of the war in March 2003, not a single terrorist attack had been carried out by anyone arriving from Iran.
“Have you ever heard of any car bomb that came from Iran?” Qomi asked. “No weapons have come through our borders.”
However, he said weapons had been smuggled from British-controlled southern Iraq into southwestern Iran for use in terrorist attacks there.
Qomi said Iran had much to offer Iraq including sharing intelligence information on terrorism, providing security expertise and training Iraqi police. He said Iran was prepared to host meetings between Sunni and Shiite religious leaders to ease sectarian tensions.
“What's important is what the Islamic Republic of Iran's policy is going to be. Our path is clear. What we want is an Iraq where there's security, is independent, free, able to start reconstruction, a strong government that is capable of getting foreign occupation forces out of here,” he said.