Three members of Iran’s elite Quds Force who were seized in Iraq by the United States were held for more than two years even though they had not been involved in anti-U.S. activities and were functioning as diplomats at the time, a former and a currently serving senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
The former official, who served in Iraq and was in a position to know about the issue but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that the three - who were turned over to the Iraqis last week and then to Iran - were in effect “hostages” taken to try to persuade Iran to reduce its support for anti-U.S. violence in Iraq.
The second official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because his account contradicted previous U.S. government statements, said the three were held as “potential leverage” against Iran, which provided financial and weapons support to anti-U.S. Iraqis after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Both Iran and Iraq protested the arrests and prolonged detentions, which attracted worldwide attention. The Quds or Jerusalem Force is an elite unit in Iran’s military and intelligence establishment. Many of its officials and veterans serve in top Iranian government positions.
U.S. officials have repeatedly suggested since the arrests that the three Iranians had been directly involved in support of anti-U.S. violence in Iraq but provided no specific evidence. The three were never charged with any wrongdoing.
Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq, which was responsible for the arrests and detentions of the three, declined to comment Tuesday on the reason the men were held for so long.
“At the request of the government of Iraq and in accordance with the Iraq-U.S. Security Agreement, the U.S. transferred the detainees to the government of Iraq,” he wrote in an e-mail in response to a query from The Washington Times.
“Detainee transfers to the government of Iraq are an official act that occurs on a regular basis in accordance with the Iraq-U.S. Security Agreement. As a matter of practice, we don’t discuss specifics regarding individual detainees.”
A press release issued by U.S.-led forces in Iraq on Jan. 11, 2007, said: “Coalition forces conducting routine security operations in Irbil detained six individuals suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces. One individual was released and five remain in custody.”
The statement went on to say that the five were detained as “part of an ongoing effort by coalition forces targeting individuals involved in activities aimed at the killings of Iraqi citizens and Iraqi and coalition forces.” Two were later released while the three Quds Force officers were held.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said Tuesday that the U.S. view “has not changed. The detainees in question are members of the Quds Force and the Quds Force is involved deeply in training and supporting Iraqi militant groups that threaten our soldiers and civilians as well as Iraqi security forces and civilians and the long-term stability of Iraq.”
However, asked to identify links between the three and any specific anti-U.S. or anti-Iraq activities, the U.S. official said he had “no information on specific acts.”
Iran has long maintained that the three were diplomats.
Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, a Quds Force officer who also serves as Iran’s ambassador in Iraq, told The Times recently that the three - Abbass Jamie, Majid Ghaemi and Hussein Bagheri - are consular officials who were arrested illegally in an office long used by the Iranians in Irbil, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Mr. Kazemi-Qomi said the three had documents proving that their activities were in accord with an agreement in effect from 1991 to 2003 between Iran and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish government.
“They worked on issuing visas and other consular matters for ordinary people, patients seeking medical care, tourists and businessmen traveling from Kurdistan to Iran,” Mr. Kazemi-Qomi said in an e-mail relayed to The Times from an official in Tehran.
One apparent target of the U.S. raid in 2007 was Mohammad Javad Jaffari, a former Quds Force officer who at the time served as a deputy national security adviser in Iran. He escaped and later joked at a May 2007 conference in Egypt - attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - about his close shave.
Although those arrested in Irbil were performing consular duties, Iran has a long history of support for militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Iranian government also has seized hostages, such as the 52 American diplomats held from 1979 to 1981. In the spring of 2007, Tehran imprisoned several Iranian-Americans in what appeared in part to be retaliation for the detention of the Quds Force officers and an effort to secure their release.
Eli Lake contributed to this report.