Iraqi officials: 6 Iranian workers held

Updated: 2007-01-11 21:36

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi officials said Thursday that multinational forces detained as many as six Iranians in an overnight raid on Tehran's diplomatic mission in the northern city of Irbil, just hours after President Bush gave details about his new military plan for Iraq.

The forces stormed the Iranian mission at about 3 a.m., detaining the five staffers and confiscating computers and documents, two senior local Kurdish officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Irbil is a city in the Kurdish-controlled north, 220 miles from Baghdad.

The action came as President Bush on Wednesday night accused Iran and Syria of "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq" during his speech announcing he would send 21,500 additional US forces to Iraq.

"We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria," he said. "And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

Iraq's government welcomed Bush's new strategy and promised it was committed to making sure it succeeds. But ordinary Iraqis gave it mixed reviews, with many expressing skepticism that an increase in US troops would quell the violence ransacking their country.

"The failure in Iraq will not only affect this country only but the rest of the region and the world, including the United States," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.

A Sunni lawmaker rejected Bush's plan to send more troops, calling instead for a timetable for them to withdraw and for direct negotiations with insurgents.

"Bush's plan could be the last attempt to fix the chaos created after the invasion of Iraq. Yet, sending more troops will not end the problem, on the contrary, there will be more bloodshed," said Sunni lawmaker Hussein al-Falluji.

On Thursday, An Iraqi official said the government is waiting for more facts about the raid on the Iranian consulate before commenting.

"There are reports that six people were detained, but now we want clarification from the American side and from the Iranian side about these people and what they were doing there and whether they were employees," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said during a news conference.

He added that Iraq's Foreign Ministry is contacting concerned sides "and then we can take an official stance on the matter."

In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors and "demanded an explanation" about the incident. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran, where there is no US Embassy.

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state-run radio that the raid was "against a diplomatic mission" since the "presence of Iranian staffers in Irbil was legal." Hosseini claimed the action by the US-led coalition reflected "continuation of pressure" on Iran, aiming to "create tension" between Iraq and its neighbors.

A resident living near the mission said the foreign force used stun bombs in the raid and brought down an Iranian flag that was on the roof of the two-story yellow house. As the operation went on, two helicopters flew overhead, said the resident on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

"They took five Iranians with them and at about seven in the morning they handed over the house to Kurdish peshmergas," he said.

In the early afternoon, a number of Kurdish guerrillas could be seen around the building preventing people from getting close to the house and not allowing cameramen and photographers to take pictures.

The report, which first appeared on Iraq state television, also was confirmed by a Shiite official in the capital, who declined to be named for the same reason.

The US military issued a statement saying it had taken six people into custody in the Irbil region but made no mention of a raid on the Iranian consulate. It declined further comment on the raid.

The motive for the raid was not known, but it came as tensions are high between Iran and the United States. The Bush administration has accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and of helping fuel violence in Iraq. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is trying to expand Iran's role in Iraq as a counter to US influence in the Gulf region.

Bush's new strategy for Iraq ignored key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which in December called for a new diplomatic offensive and an outreach to Syria and Iran. Instead, he accused both countries of aiding terrorists and insurgents in Iraq.

Speaking on how bad relations between the United States, Iran and Syria affect Iraq, al-Dabbagh said "for sure any improvement (of relations) between the United States and these two countries will make us avoid many problems."

"Some times we pay the price for the tension in relations between Iran and the United States and Syria and the United States, therefore it is in our interest as Iraqis that these relations improve but not at the expense of Iraq," he said. "For that reason, we hope, encourage and are playing a role in getting the points of view closer between" them.

Late last month, US troops elsewhere in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity.

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