(CNSNews.com) – Iran on Sunday welcomed as heroes five men held by U.S. forces in Iraq on suspicion of aiding deadly anti-coalition violence. Iran played down any suggestion that their release may help to improve relations between Tehran and Washington.
Instead Iran said the United Nations and other international bodies should look into what it called the “abduction” of its “diplomats” by U.S. troops in northern Iraq in 2007.
Their capture was a “clear breach of all international conventions,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in Tehran, where a ceremony was held to welcome the five home.
He declared that Iran reserved the right to take legal action against the U.S., accusing the Obama administration of continuing the Bush administration’s “bullying” policies.
Mottaki said the activities of Iran’s diplomatic missions in Iraq “have always aimed to help the people of the country,” to ensure its stability and to boost Tehran-Baghdad ties.
When the men were captured in Arbil in January 2007, the U.S. linked them to the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an organization the U.S. and British governments and militaries have accused of facilitating violence by Shi’ite militias against coalition forces.
In particular, the two governments have accused Iran and the Qods Force of responsibility for an influx of deadly roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs) with shaped charges designed to pierce armored vehicles.
IEDs have been responsible for a high proportion of the deaths of American personnel in Iraq: Of 2,519 deaths in combat since January 2005, some 1,433 (57 percent) have been attributed to IEDs, according to a Cybercast News Service database. (see graph)
The U.S. has disputed Tehran’s claim that the five men were diplomats, or that the building where they were arrested had diplomatic status. Iran has called it a “consulate.”
U.S. forces last week handed the Iranians over to Iraqi custody, although the State Department acknowledged that there were ongoing concerns about the safety of U.S. forces – concerns which it said had been made clear to the Iraqis.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite with close historical ties to Iran, immediately turned the five over to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.
The State Department said the handover was not linked to the Obama administration’s effort to engage the regime in Tehran, but that it was an obligation contained in a U.S.-Iraq security agreement that came into effect on January 1.
The security pact did, however, include a clause under which Iraq could have ensured the five remained in custody if it felt them to pose an ongoing threat. The agreement says the U.S. will free all detainees or, in cases where Iraq provides an arrest warrant, hand them over to Iraqi jurisdiction. But, it adds that Iraq can request that specific detainees not be released, in line with an article of the agreement that deals with instances in which Iraq may ask the U.S. for security assistance, for example in countering terrorism.
U.S. Army General Ray Odierno, the senior commander in Iraq, said just a fortnight ago that there had been an increase in EFPs and indirect fire in Baghdad, describing them as “signature elements of groups that have been trained in Iran and who’ve been equipped and given money to perform these attacks from Iran.”
Three weeks earlier, Odierno told a briefing that a cache of more than 100 EFPs had been found at Amarah near the border with Iran, along with “hundreds of rocket systems that we all know came from Iran.”
Although he said it was not clear how long they had been there, “there’s still a lot of Iranian-supplied munitions and other things that are still in Iraq that can be and are being used, in some cases, against both the government of Iraq and U.S. forces.”
Iranian media dedicated significant coverage to the men’s return on Sunday.
The Tehran Times said the “diplomats” were welcomed at the airport by Mottaki and other Iraqi officials and lawmakers as well as “a cheering crowd who carried the men on their shoulders and placed garlands on their necks.”
It named the five as Mohsen Bagheri, Mahmoud Farhadi, Majid Ghaemi, Majid Dagheri, and Abbas Jami, and said three had been based at the “Iranian consulate” in Arbil, one had been based in Sulaymaniyah – which like Arbil is located in the Kurdish autonomous zone – and one in Baghdad.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said the release would have no impact on Tehran’s relations with Washington, noting that it had taken place in the context of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Iran’s influential Keyhan newspaper – whose editor is appointed by and serves as an advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – said in an opinion piece published Monday that the five had been held as “hostages.”
“The diplomat’s abduction was yet another reminder of the lows that the U.S. government can sink to, in order to impose its brand of dictatorship on the countries that are astute enough not to buy into the American pipe dream,” it said.
The article also said that the Islamic world must now “bring the nations responsible for the genocide in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine to book via the U.N.,” saying that a united strategy to accomplish that goal had already been devised.