- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq says he does not know of any evidence linking three Iranian Quds Force officers to specific acts against U.S. forces even though the three were jailed by U.S. authorities for more than two years.

The prolonged detention put the United States at odds with elements of the Iraqi government, which long argued that the men were performing a liaison function with the Kurds in northern Iraq. Iraq released the three to Iran immediately after they were turned over by the Americans two weeks ago.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, defended the arrest and incarceration, arguing that the three were members of an organization that “arms, trains, funds, equips … and directs” extremist elements in Iraq. He also said they were on an “intelligence-gathering mission.”

But Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from March 2007 to February 2009, told The Washington Times, “I was not aware of any specific information linking [the three Iranians] to specific acts against coalition personnel.”

Mr. Crocker added that he thought the arrest and detention were justified because the three were members of the Quds or Jerusalem Force, which, he asserted, had been involved in attacks on Americans and Iraqis.

The Times, citing a former senior U.S. official and a currently serving U.S. official, reported July 15 that the Iranians were performing diplomatic duties when they were arrested in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil on Jan. 11, 2007. It quoted the former U.S. official as saying that the three were essentially held as “hostages” to try to persuade Iran to halt its support for Iraqis taking part in anti-U.S. violence.

Gen. Petraeus challenged the account in an e-mail to The Times.

“These individuals admitted to being Quds Force officers.The Quds Force is the organization that arms, trains, funds, equips [with weapons and sophisticated explosive devices], and directs the militia and other Shia extremist elements that killed coalition and Iraqi forces, as well as Iraqi officials and innocent civilians,” he wrote.

“The individuals were not diplomats. They did not have diplomatic credentials. They were not on a diplomatic mission; rather, they were on an intelligence gathering mission. American forces do not detain diplomats; doing so violates international norms and would jeopardize the safety of our diplomats around the world.”

No evidence of any specific anti-U.S. or anti-Iraq acts linked to the men was provided by Gen. Petraeus, others at Central Command, the U.S.-led Multinational Force-Iraq or the White House.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, told The Times this week that the Iranians - Abbass Jamie, Majid Ghaemi and Hussein Bagheri - were conducting consular activities in northern Iraq before they were arrested.

“Really, they were doing some consular work,” Mr. Zebari said. He said that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments were in the process of formalizing the Irbil consulate at the time of the arrest. He said such a consulate was set up last year.

Mr. Zebari said Quds Force officers - who are responsible for overseas security matters for Iran and sometimes serve in diplomatic posts - had been sent to Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War to issue travel permits to Kurds seeking to visit relatives in Iran and to authorize trade deals.

He attributed the decision to arrest the three to the George W. Bush administration’s surge strategy, which he said had two parts: to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and “to interdict Iranian assets.”

U.S. authorities, obliged to turn over prisoners to the Iraqi government under the provisions of a status-of-forces agreement, released the men July 9. The Iraqis then allowed them to return to Iran.

Asked about the timing of the release, Mr. Zebari said he thought the U.S. waited until Iran released Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi on May 11 after four months in jail on charges of spying. He said the release was also in line with the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Iran.

Central Command spokesman Capt. Jack Hanzlik denied any connection with the Saberi case.

“Under the terms of the security agreement, we agreed that Iraq would take control of all detainees and determine if they presented a continued threat,” Capt. Hanzlik said. “The decision was Iraq’s, not ours. We simply hope their release results in no additional violence.”

• Barbara Slavin can be reached at .

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