- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

TEHRAN — An Iranian diplomat missing for two months in Iraq was freed yesterday, and an Iraqi official said his government was working for the release of the five other Iranians to help end the standoff over 15 British sailors in Iran.

Diplomat Jalal Sharafi arrived in Tehran yesterday, hours after he was freed by his captors in Iraq, officials said. He was seized Feb. 4 by uniformed gunmen in Karradah, a Shi’ite-controlled district of Baghdad.

Iran said the diplomat had been abducted by an Iraqi military unit commanded by U.S. forces — a charge repeated by several Iraqi Shi’ite lawmakers. U.S. authorities denied any role in his disappearance.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said the Iraqi government had exerted pressure on those holding Mr. Sharafi to release him — but he would not identify the diplomat’s captors.

Another senior government official said Iraqi intelligence had been holding the Iranian. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

Mr. Sharafi was a second secretary at the Iranian Embassy involved in plans to open a branch of the Iranian national bank. U.S. officials say Iran provides money and weapons to Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

Mr. Sharafi was abducted a month after the U.S. military arrested five other Iranians in northern Iraq. The United States described one of those captives as a senior officer of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said his government was working “intensively” for the release of the five other Iranians to “help in the release of the British sailors and marines.”

Neither Iran nor Iraq nor Britain has said explicitly that a prisoner swap is in the works. Iran has denied it seized the Britons to force the release of Iranians held in Iraq, and Britain has steadfastly insisted it would not negotiate for the servicemen’s freedom.

In Washington, President Bush signaled the same.

“I also strongly support the prime minister’s declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages,” Mr. Bush said.

It was not clear whether the Iraqis had won Mr. Sharafi’s freedom on their own initiative to encourage a settlement, which would ease tension without endangering their own claim to the waters where the Britons were captured.

Nevertheless, the release of Mr. Sharafi and efforts to free the five other Iranians suggested that the parameters of a deal might be taking shape.

Britain yesterday called for direct talks with Iran to resolve the dispute over the captive Britons after its first contact with the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani.

In a statement late yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said there had been “further contacts” between the two countries, including with Mr. Larijani.

“The U.K. has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin,” Mr. Blair’s office said. “Both sides share a desire for an early resolution to this issue through direct talks.”

The British prime minister told reporters in Scotland that the next two days would be “fairly critical” to resolving the standoff, although he gave no details as to what he meant.

Iran maintains the British sailors had encroached on Iranian waters when they were seized by naval units of the Revolutionary Guards on March 23. Britain insists its sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters and has demanded their unconditional release.

Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted First Vice President Parviz Davoodi as saying that “Britain should accept that it has invaded Iranian waters and guarantee that it will not be repeated.”

“The violation was clear and obvious and all evidences and documents were suggesting occurrence of the violation,” Mr. Davoodi added. “Britain has recently changed its approach and shifted toward legal and diplomatic negotiations.”

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett warned against expectations of a swift resolution, saying that “diplomatic efforts will continue.” She also said Britain still has not been granted consular access to the captives.

Iran’s Fars News Agency released new pictures of the British captives on its Web site yesterday. The images showed six sailors sitting on a carpet in a room, wearing blue, black and red track suits. Two sailors were shown playing chess.

“It seems that the sailors are satisfied with their situation, in which they are enjoying good conditions instead of working in a hard situation in the Persian Gulf,” the caption said.

Faye Turney, the only woman among the captured, was shown without a head scarf. She had worn one in initial images released of the Royal Navy crew.

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