BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. troops detained at least five Iranians in two raids in northern Iraq just hours before President Bush vowed in a nationally televised speech to clamp down on support that Iran allegedly is providing to militants in Iraq, Iraqi officials said Thursday.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari called the U.S. raids "very, very embarrassing." One resulted in the arrest of legitimate Iranian diplomats and the second nearly triggered a gunfight between American and local Iraqi security forces, he said.
In Washington, several senior Democratic and Republic lawmakers expressed alarm that Bush's plan to interdict alleged support for Iraqi insurgents could lead to secret military strikes inside Iran and Syria. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., warned that such action would require congressional approval, while Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, called the policy "very, very dangerous."
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said operations will take place only inside Iraq and that there were no plans for cross-border strikes. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that President Bush "isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops."
The Pentagon announced Thursday that as part of the new strategy, the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group—five surface ships, a submarine, a support vessel and about 80 aircraft—and an Army battalion of four Patriot air defense missile batteries were being ordered to the region to boost security.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the ships were being sent in part to signal to Iran and Syria and "anyone else who thinks the United States is cutting and running (from Iraq) that it is not."
In unveiling his new Iraq policy, Bush laid out a tougher policy toward Iran, which he accused of supplying arms to Iraqi militants, and toward Syria, which he said allows terrorists to cross into Iraq.
He repeated a long-standing U.S. charge that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons and vowed the United States would work to prevent Tehran from "dominating" the Middle East.
Senators grilling Rice warned that an overly aggressive U.S. response would risk escalating frictions throughout the already tension-fraught region.
Both Tehran and Damascus have supporters in Iraq who could retaliate against U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. Both countries could also sponsor attacks by Islamic extremists on American targets in the Middle East or other parts of the world.
Bush has spurned bipartisan calls to negotiate with Iran and Syria.
The U.S. raids in Irbil, the main city of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, came just hours before Bush's speech.
At around 2 a.m. local time, U.S. troops stormed a building that functioned as an Iranian consulate, arrested five men and seized computers and files, Iraqi officials said.
A U.S. military statement confirmed the raid and said six persons closely tied to attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces had been arrested.
It did not disclose the names or nationalities of the detainees.
The regional Kurdish government called the arrests unacceptable, complaining that local authorities had not been forewarned of the operation.
Mithal Alusi, a member of the national Parliament, charged that the detainees were Iranian intelligence officers involved in terrorist activities in northern Iraq. He insisted that they did not have diplomatic status.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari, however, told McClatchy Newspapers that the Iranian office had operated in Irbil for more than 10 years and the Iranians were in Iraq legally. "This is very, very embarrassing," he said. "The Iraqi government was aware of who was in that office."
Later Thursday, U.S. forces staged a second raid, attempting to enter Irbil airport and abduct a group of unidentified individuals, he said.
Members of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as peshmerga confronted the Americans when they refused to identify themselves, and a gun battle was narrowly averted "at the 11th hour," said Zebari.
He said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told him that the first raid was aimed at people who were trying to harm U.S. troops. Khalilzad said he was unaware of the operation at the airport.
Zebari said the raids were part of a pattern of stepped up U.S. operations against Iranian operatives. "That is in line with their approach, yes."
U.S. troops detained several Iranian diplomats and officials last month in Baghdad.
The issue dominated the opening of Rice's Senate hearing yesterday.
Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Rice on whether operations against alleged Iranian and Syrian support networks would include cross-border strikes against "persons . . . or governments."
"Obviously the president isn't going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq," she replied.
She sidestepped a question about whether Bush could mount cross-border operations without Congress' approval.
"I believe . . . he does need congressional authority to do that," replied Biden.
Biden later wrote to Bush asking him to state whether he believed he had the constitutional authority to order cross-border strikes without congressional authorization.
Rice's answers also failed to satisfy Hagel, an Army veteran of the Vietnam war, who said that former President Nixon "lied" in denying that he had ordered U.S. forces to invade Cambodia in 1970.
"No one in our government can sit here today and tell Americans that we won't engage the Iranians and the Syrians cross-border," said Hagel. "When you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it's very, very dangerous."
(Youssef reported from Baghdad, and Landay from Washington)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.