U.S.: 4 released Iranians had Sunni links in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The United States followed through Friday on its promise to release nine Iranians held in Iraq, including two accused of helping smuggle weapons into Iraq.

The release wasn't without surprise, however. One of the captives had been in U.S. custody nearly three years, and at least four were picked up in military actions directed against Sunni Muslim insurgents and not the Shiite militias that Iran is generally accused of assisting.

U.S. officials said they were still holding 11 Iranians, but the Iranian ambassador to Iraq insisted that the number still held was 25, and he demanded that Iraq continue to press for their release.

"Since these diplomats were kidnapped by U.S. forces on Iraq's soil while performing their diplomatic duties and they enjoyed diplomatic immunity, the Iraqi government is obliged to do its best to hasten their release from illegal arrest," Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi said.

The nine were surrendered to Iraqi authorities, who then turned them over to Iranian officials.

The U.S. military took pains to characterize the releases as routine, noting that an average of 50 captives are freed daily. On Thursday, the military held a ceremony at its headquarters at Camp Victory to mark the release of 500 Iraqi detainees.

But the preoccupation over Iran, in Washington and Iraq, prompted speculation that the United States was under pressure to show a gesture of good will — though to whom wasn't clear.

The gesture might have been for the benefit of the Iraqi government, which has been trying to foster better relations with its neighbor.

A senior U.S. military official, while cautioning that the Iranian government shouldn't see the releases as a sign of improving relations, said nevertheless that he hoped they would encourage Iran to stick to its vow not to supply weapons to militias. The officer asked to remain anonymous because of the political sensitivity surrounding U.S.-Iranian relations.

Iraq's foreign minister still expressed hopes that the release might lead to something bigger.

"We have welcomed this development and this decision by the U.S. military. We hope it will enhance the relationship between Iran and the United States about Iraqi security," the foreign minister, Hoshayr Zebari, said. "Soon we will invite both sides for another round of talks in Baghdad."

Iran's Kazemi-Qomi was less optimistic.

"The release will not have a profound effect on the relations between Iran and America because the release was prompted by a request from the Iraqi government," he said. "They were inside Iraq on legitimate missions and all the detentions were not legal. . . . They must all be released; that would be the right thing to do."

The U.S. has accused Iran of undermining Iraq's security by supplying rebels with weapons, including assault rifles, grenade launchers and sophisticated roadside bombs known as EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators.

U.S. military casualties in Iraq have declined in recent months, however, as U.S. and Iraqi forces have reported seizing more than twice as many weapons caches this year as last.

Iraqi government officials, as well as leaders of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, had pressed the U.S. military for the release, saying the Iranians were in Iraq for legitimate reasons. At least six Iranians detained by the U.S. this year were captured in Iraqi Kurdistan.

For the first time, the United States provided the names of the Iranians and the details of their capture.

Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh were arrested, along with three others still in U.S. custody, on Jan. 11 during what the military said was "an intelligence driven" raid of Iranian government offices in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

They were suspected of being members of Iran's elite Quds force, an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the U.S. military says arms and finances Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.

Seven others were captured in unrelated military operations, some dating back three years, and included at least two who the military said were affiliated with al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group. Two others were arrested in cities controlled at the time by Sunni insurgents.

The military said Adil Wusayn Shamarad Muhammad and Azzam Hasan Karam Abd, both Shiites, were captured Feb. 20, 2006, during a raid to disrupt al Qaida in Iraq operations.

Raed Abdurehman Hussain al Kobadi, the longest held captive, was taken into custody on Nov. 20, 2004, in Fallujah, which at the time was controlled by Sunni insurgents. The military said he was fleeing the scene of a mortar attack when he was detained.

Ibrahim Mahmud Ahmed al Kubady was taken into custody April 8, 2005, during a raid in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Ramadi was dominated by Sunni insurgents at the time.

Iran is governed by Shiite clerics, and al Qaida in Iraq is generally seen as vehemently anti-Shiite. But military officials said they believe Iran has helped fund and arm Sunni insurgents, though to a lesser degree than the assistance given to Shiite militias.

The others released were:

_ Mohammad Ali Abbas al Buzuda, who was arrested May 6 by Iraqi police in al Qadisiyah on suspicion of entering Iraq illegally from Iran.

_ Jafan Allah, who was taken into custody July 26 after turning himself in at a border checkpoint. The military provided no other details.

_ Habib Muhammad Ghuribani Kurdi was captured Aug. 1 during "an intelligence-driven raid aimed at capturing a senior insurgent," the military said.

(Calvan reports for The Sacramento Bee.)