- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

12:44 p.m.

TEHRAN — An Iranian diplomat seized two months ago in Iraq by uniformed gunmen has been freed — a move that suggested progress today in British efforts to win the freedom of 15 sailors and marines held by Iran.

Neither British, U.S. nor Iraqi officials would say if the release of diplomat Jalal Sharafi was linked directly to Britain’s efforts to gain its sailors’ release. Britain has publicly sworn not to negotiate. And the signals from Iran grew less clear when the Fars news agency issued a new picture of British sailors, an apparent breach of the understanding that no more such photographs would be published.

The picture, apparently a still taken from a video, showed six sailors squatting on a carpet in a room, wearing blue, black and red tracksuits.

The caption says: “British sailors are chatting and eating fruit, drinking coffee and 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.”

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

British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters in Scotland that the next two days would be “fairly critical” in resolving the standoff over the navy crew, although he gave no details of what he meant.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi official said his government had exerted pressure on those holding the Iranian diplomat in order to gain his release. Mr. Sharafi was released yesterday and returned to Tehran today.

The Iraqi official would not say who had held the diplomat, but another senior Iraqi official said Mr. Sharafi had been held by Iraqi intelligence. Both Iraqi officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Mr. Sharafi was seized on Feb. 4 by uniformed gunmen in Karradah, a Shi’ite-controlled district of Baghdad. Iran contended that he had been seized by an Iraqi military unit commanded by U.S. military forces — a charge repeated by several Iraqi Shi’ite lawmakers.

But U.S. authorities denied any role in his disappearance.

Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed Mr. Sharafi’s release but gave no indication of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance or his release. Mr. Sharafi was a second secretary at the embassy involved in plans to open a branch of the Iranian national bank in Karradah. U.S. officials say Iran provides money and weapons to Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

Mr. Sharafi was abducted a month after American authorities arrested five Iranians in northern Iraq. One of those captives was described by the United States as a senior officer of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said today Baghdad also was “intensively” seeking the release of the five Iranians in order to help win freedom for the 15 Britons.

The Britons were captured March 23 by naval units of the Revolutionary Guards in disputed waters of the Persian Gulf — fueling suspicion that the Iranians would offer to exchange them for Iranians held in Iraq.

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