BAGHDAD, (AP) – The Iranian ambassador in Baghdad said the recent release of two Iranians from Iraqi custody is not an indication of any impending deal to free three Americans held by Tehran on spying charges.
Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi told The Associated Press the fate of the Americans, who have been held since July, is in the hands of the Iranian judiciary and has no connection to the release of two Iranians earlier this month.
“There were no deals,” Qomi said. “They (Americans) are in the custody of the judiciary system.”
The detained Americans — Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27 — were arrested along the Iraqi border. Iran has accused them of espionage, but their families say the three were hiking in northern Iraq’s mountainous Kurdish region and if they strayed into Iran, it was unintentional.
In a goodwill gesture by Iran, their mothers were allowed to visit them earlier in May — for the first time since they were taken into Iranian custody.
The visit, along with the release by Baghdad of two Iranians held for years in U.S. and later Iraqi custody, raised the possibility of a behind-the-scenes swap for the Americans’ freedom. The option came into focus especially after Iranian leaders suggested a link between the American trio and a number of Iranians held by the U.S. who Tehran would like to see released.
During an interview with The AP at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad late Sunday, Qomi discussed the case of the three Americans.
“The families came and visited them,” he said. “The judiciary system has a fair position on this matter. We hope that their issue will be solved.”
The Americans’ detention comes at an increasingly tense period between Iran and the West, concerned over Iran’s refusal to stop its controversial uranium enrichment that the U.S. and its allies fear masks a push to make nuclear weapons. The U.N. is weighing a new set of sanctions against Iran over the program, which Tehran maintains is only peaceful.
The U.S. has also often accused Tehran of meddling in Iraq, particularly by financing Shiite militias that frequently attacked American troops here.
But Qomi said the U.S. has not offered proof of Iranian interference. He said Tehran wants to see Iraq remain stable, so that American troops can go home under the Obama administration timetable.
An unstable Iraq would give “an excuse to the forces that occupied Iraq to stay,” he said, referring to American soldiers. He added that it would also make Iraq a “base for terrorism.” Reconstruction work is still going on at the embassy after an April bombing outside the mission’s gates.
Iraq has been three months without a new government following the inconclusive March parliamentary elections in which the Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance narrowly beat a bloc headed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both sides failed to get a majority to govern alone, setting off weeks of frantic negotiations with other political groups to form the next government.
Iran, which like Iraq is predominantly Shiite, is believed to have heavily supported a union of al-Maliki’s State of Law and the traditionally Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance. That alliance is only four seats short of the needed majority but arguments over who should be its pick for prime minister has raised doubts about its viability.
Qomi said the political wrangling was Iraq’s “internal matter” but that Iran would like to see the next Iraqi government include all groups that did well in the elections, including prominent Sunni figures on Iraqiya’s list, led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi.
Meanwhile, six people were killed and about two dozen were wounded in separate attacks in Iraq, police and hospital officials said Monday. Among the dead was a prominent local leader of anti-insurgent Sunni forces known as Awakening Councils who was shot in Baghdad.
A policeman in Baghdad and another in the northern city of Kirkuk were also killed by roadside bombs. An Iraqi soldier in the northern city of Mosul died from wounds sustained in a car bomb blast, while gunmen killed two policemen in a drive-by shooting at a checkpoint in the city.
Iraq also announced the arrest of two alleged al-Qaida militants.
A spokesman for Baghdad operations command, Qassim al-Moussawi, identified one of them as Abbas Nejim Abdullah al-Jawari, who was detained April 16 in western Baghdad and suspected in attacks against embassies and hotels. The second was Mohammed Nouri Mutar Yaseen, described as the head of a Baghdad hit squad and arrested May 1. Al-Moussawi said he was involved in attacks against government ministries, embassies and hotels but did not provide specifics.
A string of April bombings targeting mostly embassies, including Iran’s, killed at least 42 people and in January, attacks on hotels in Baghdad left 37 dead.