US soldiers from 1-501 Para-Infantry Regiment take positions moments after a Blackhawk helicopter air lifted their unit into a drop zone south of Baghdad as part of Operation Gecko. Firefights between police and gunmen killed at least 27 people and wounded 147 during a massive Shiite pilgrimage at the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Tuesday. [AFP]
A group of eight Iranians, including two diplomats, were released by US forces Wednesday after being detained because unauthorized weapons were found in their cars, the US military said.
Four cars carrying the Iranians, as well as seven Iraqis, were stopped at a checkpoint Tuesday evening and then allowed to proceed to the nearby Sheraton Ishtar hotel, where they were later taken into custody and questioned, the military said.
Troops seized three weapons from the cars - an AK-47 assault rifle and two 9mm pistols that had been in the possession of the Iraqis in the group. The Iraqis were serving as a protective detail but had no weapons permits, the US military said.
At the hotel later, U.S. troops confiscated a laptop, cell phones and a briefcase full of Iranian and American money in the hotel, the military said.
"Following the brief room search the group was taken to a coalition facility for questioning," the US military said in a statement. "The Iranian nationals had passports. It was later determined that two of the Iranian individuals were carrying diplomatic credentials."
All the Iranians were released Wednesday to Iraqi officials, the military said. The fate of the Iraqis - who identified themselves with Iraqi Ministry of Electricity badges - was not immediately clear, and the military did not say whether the confiscated items were returned.
An Iranian diplomat, who refused to give his name, said that one of those released contacted the embassy Wednesday morning to say that they had been handed over to Iraqi authorities.
"At 7 a.m. today, a member of the delegation called the embassy and said they are now at the prime minister's office," the diplomat said. "The Americans released them. They held them until seven this morning."
The Iranian embassy said the Iranians included two embassy staffers and six members of a delegation from Iran's Energy Ministry. The diplomat had earlier said there were seven Iranians held and one diplomat.
The embassy said the men had not yet been in to explain in full what happened, and that it was not sure whether their belongings had been returned.
Videotape shot Tuesday night by Associated Press Television News showed US troops leading about 10 blindfolded and handcuffed men out of the hotel in central Baghdad. Other soldiers carried out what appeared to be luggage and at least one briefcase and a laptop computer bag.
Iran has constantly complained about the US detention since January 11 of five Iranians who were in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. US officials say the five include the operations chief and other members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants.
The Iranian government denies any involvement in the violence wracking its neighbor.
Relations also are edgy over the suspicions of the US and its allies that Tehran is using its civilian nuclear power program as a screen to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies that, saying the program only has the peaceful aim of generating electricity.
The strains have many people in the region worried about the possibility of fighting between the US and Iran.
But while making his latest defense of Iran's nuclear program earlier Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the possibility of any US military action against Iran, saying Washington has no plan and is not in a position to take such action.
Ahmadinejad declared that US political influence in Iraq is "collapsing rapidly" and that Tehran is ready to help fill any power vacuum.