BAGHDAD — The U.S. military soon will release nine Iranians it's holding in Iraq, including two held since January on suspicion that they'd funneled weapons and financial support to Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias.
A military spokesman described the decision to release the nine as routine and cautioned against reading greater meaning into it. He didn't explain why it took 10 months to decide that the two weren't terrorists.
"These individuals have been assessed to be of no continuing value, nor do they pose a further threat to Iraqi security," said American Navy Rear Adm. Greg Smith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
But the timing of the announcement, after a month in which American casualties dropped to their lowest point in 19 months, prompted speculation that the release might be part of trilateral negotiations among the U.S., Iraq and Iran over Iraqi security.
The Iranian government recently promised Baghdad that it would stop arming, funding and training extremists. Last week, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 American military commander here, said that explosively formed penetrators, a relatively sophisticated variety of roadside bomb that American officials say Iran is supplying, were killing fewer U.S. soldiers than they once did.
Military officials announced the pending release in a statement that also said that American and Iraqi forces in the first 10 months of this year had confiscated double the number of weapons that were confiscated in all of last year. U.S. officials think that many of the confiscated assault rifles, grenade launchers and homemade bombs came from Iran.
"We hope in the coming weeks and months to confirm that Iran has indeed honored its pledge through further verification that the flow of munitions and other lethal aid has stopped," Smith said.
Other events added to speculation about the release announcement:
_ It came two days after the regional government in Kurdish Iraq engineered the release of eight Turkish soldiers who'd been captured last month by rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK in its Kurdish initials, a group that's on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations but has widespread support in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish regional officials have complained repeatedly over the past year that American forces were detaining Iranians who'd been in Iraq at their invitation.
_ The International Committee of the Red Cross announced in Geneva that it had overseen the repatriation to Iran of an Iranian who'd been held for two months in northern Iraq by the anti-Iranian Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.
PJAK, which Iranian authorities accuse of attacks in Iran, is closely affiliated with the PKK. The ICRC provided no details of how the Iranian had been captured or what led to his release.
_ Iran inaugurated a new consulate in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. The United States has detained at least five Iranians in Irbil, including two of those now awaiting release.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, called for the immediate release of all Iranians being held by U.S. forces and again called the arrests illegal.
After the nine are released, the United States will still be holding four Iranians: three who were arrested last January in Irbil and a fourth who was detained in September in Sulaimaniyah, northern Iraq's second largest city.
The United States has declined to identify any of the men. None of them has been charged with criminal activity, and American officials have declined to discuss the reasons for their detention in detail.
Iraq's central government and the Kurdish regional government have protested the detentions, saying all the men were in Iraq legitimately.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari, a Kurd, called the U.S. announcement a hopeful sign.
"We've been asking them repeatedly for quite some time to release them. We want them all released," Zebari said. "We think that this will help a great deal with the dialogue between Iran, Iraq and the United States over Iraqi security."
The U.S. seizure of Iranians in Iraq began when U.S. troops stormed Iranian offices in Irbil last January and arrested five men whom they accused of being members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the largest branch of Iran's military.
The U.S. subsequently detained other Iranians, some for only a few hours, as tensions between the countries increased over Iran's alleged role in arming Iraqi militants and its suspected nuclear-weapons program.
What led the U.S. to announce the release of nine Iranians was unclear. The American Embassy in Iraq declined to comment.
Smith, the U.S. military spokesman, said two of the men to be released were seized in the January raid and were members of the Revolutionary Guard. But he said they were considered "low-level threats."
He declined to provide details of when and where the seven others were captured. Some had been in custody for months, others for years, Smith said.
Details of the pending release are still being planned, he said.
(Calvan reports for The Sacramento Bee. Nancy A. Youssef in Baghdad and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Yaseen Taha in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.)