- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Iran closed major border crossings with northeastern Iraq yesterday to protest the U.S. detention of an Iranian official whom the military accused of weapons smuggling, a Kurdish official said.

Five border gates were closed starting Sunday night and continuing yesterday morning, leaving travelers and cargo stranded, according to officials and witnesses.

The move threatens the economy of Iraq”s northern region — one of the country”s few success stories — and also appears aimed at driving a wedge between Iraq and the U.S. at a time of friction over a deadly shooting in Baghdad involving the security firm Blackwater USA.

The closures came on a day that a suicide bomber targeted a reconciliation meeting of Shi”ite and Sunni tribal leaders in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. At least 15 persons, including the city”s police chief, were killed, security officials said.

A witness said most of the people killed or wounded were in the mosque yard washing their hands or drinking tea after taking a break from the meeting for the Iftar banquet, the daily meal to break the sunrise-to-sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The bombing, which bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, was a challenge to the U.S. strategy of turning members of both Islamic groups against extremists in a bid to duplicate the success in Anbar province to the west of the capital.

The U.S. military has claimed recent success in quelling violence in Baqouba by sending thousands of additional American and Iraqi troops to the area. The meeting of tribal leaders and clerics from both Islamic sects was aimed at reducing sectarian tension and discussing ways to support security forces against insurgents.

There were varying responses from Iranian officials to the border closures.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the intent was to protect pilgrims.

“On an annual basis, millions of Iranians visit Iraq and Iraq”s holy sites for pilgrimage purposes,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said in an interview in New York. “Recently, as a result of some clashes and the explosion of some bombs, a number of Iranian civilian casualties arose. So the government has asked Iranian citizens to avoid traveling for pilgrimage purposes until security is restored.”

However, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported that five border points had been closed to protest the detention of the Iranian, who has been identified as Mahmudi Farhadi. He was arrested four days ago during a raid on a hotel in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.

U.S. officials said Mr. Farhadi was a member of the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which smuggles weapons into Iraq. But Iraqi and Iranian leaders said he was in the country on official business and with the full knowledge of the government.

Sulaimaniyah Gov. Dana Ahmed Majeed said the move affected crossing points near the border towns of Panjwin, Haj Omran, Halabja and Khanaqin. A crossing at the town of Shena had remained open, but the mayor of the nearby town of Qalat Diza, Hussein Ahmed, said that gate was closed at about 10 a.m.

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