BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military said on Sunday that five Iranians held by its troops in Iraq are linked to Revolutionary Guards who are arming and funding Iraqi militants but Tehran called them diplomats and demanded they be released.
The five were arrested on Thursday in a U.S. dawn raid on an Iranian government office in the Kurdish city of Arbil.
It was the second such operation in a month and came as President Bush issued a blunt warning to Iran over its activities in Iraq. It sparked concerns that the conflict may widen as Washington prepares to send additional troops to Iraq to quell soaring sectarian violence there.
The operation, denounced by the regional Kurdish government as a violation of its sovereignty, underlined the challenges Baghdad faces in striking a balance with Washington while building relations with neighbors the Bush administration accuses of fueling violence in Iraq.
Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, was due to travel on Sunday to Syria, which the Bush administration says allows weapons and fighters to cross its border into Iraq in support of the anti-U.S. insurgency there.
A day after the Arbil raid, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari expressed his government’s concerns that Iraq may become a “battleground for settling scores with other countries.”
The U.S. military said the five detainees were connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).
The organization was “known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces,” it said in a statement.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini demanded their immediate release, saying that the five were diplomats involved in “consulate affairs.” Iraq has said the mission did not yet have consular status but was operating legitimately.
“Americans should immediately release the five Iranians and pay compensation for the damages they caused to our office in Arbil,” Hosseini told a weekly news conference.
Iraqi political sources have said they believe the five will be released soon and that the Americans had failed to find their main targets. Zebari, who said the Iranian office has been operating legally for years, has called for their release.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the Middle East on a tour to drum up support for Bush’s plan to send an extra 21,500 troops to quell violence in Iraq, repeated Washington’s accusations that Iran is providing training and weapons to militias fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.
“I think there is plenty of evidence that there is Iranian involvement with these networks that are making high-explosive IEDs (bombs) and that are endangering our troops, and that’s going to be dealt with,” she told reporters on her trip.
But Rice said Bush’s order to target Iranians operating in Iraq as tensions between the two counties have mounted over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions was not a broadening of the dispute.
Rice also said on Saturday Washington would hold Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to his promises to reduce sectarian violence and that it was now time to see results.
A day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Maliki could lose his job if he failed to stop communal bloodshed, Rice echoed previous remarks that Maliki’s government was living on “borrowed time” and that America’s patience was running out.
“To say that your patience isn’t limited is simply to say that the Iraqi government needs to start to show results,” Rice told reporters before arriving in Israel on Saturday, according to a State Department transcript of her remarks.
With Bush’s critics saying his new strategy depends too heavily on Maliki keeping promises he failed to keep before, administration officials are piling pressure on Iraqi politicians to solve their differences and avert civil war.
Bush on Saturday accused opponents of failing to propose alternative strategies and urged support for troops on a mission “that will in large part determine the outcome in Iraq.”
Maliki has vowed to lead a Baghdad push he says will hit insurgents from the once-dominant Sunni minority and militias loyal to fellow Shi’ites, a key demand of Washington and Sunnis.
Talabani’s visit to Damascus is the first by a senior Iraqi official since the two countries resumed diplomatic ties last month after more than two decades of boycott after Syria sided with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war in 1980s.
Aides said Talabani will discuss security and ask Damascus to control its borders and stop insurgents moving into Iraq.
Both Syria and Iran deny that they provide support to militants operating in Iraq.