BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s foreign minister has asked the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad to shed more light on the circumstances surrounding the detention of three Americans, an act that put pressure on already strained relations between the U.S. and Tehran.
Iraq is caught between its two largest allies, putting the Iraqi government in the uncomfortable position of balancing relations with two countries at odds.
Iran has said it is holding the Americans for illegally entering the country, and a prominent Iranian lawmaker has said authorities were investigating whether to charge them with spying. The State Department has dismissed allegations of spying. Kurdish authorities have said the three were hikers who accidentally strayed across the border.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari asked about the detained Americans during a meeting Thursday with the ambassador, according to a statement posted on the ministry Web site.
The statement did not provide details about the conversation, and it was not known whether the ambassador provided any information.
Freelance journalist Shane Bauer, Sara Shourd and Josh Fattal were detained on July 31 after apparently straying across the border while hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
A fourth American, Shon Meckfessel, who did not go on the hike because he felt ill, has said the three left July 30 to go camping by a waterfall near the border, and that a day later Bauer called him to say they had been detained by Iranian authorities.
Meckfessel has said Bauer urged him to contact the U.S. Embassy.
Iraqi authorities have said the area is poorly marked. Iran and Iraq share an 800 mile (1,280 kilometer) border. The two countries have long-standing disagreements over border issues, including the demarcation line of a waterway in southern Iraq.
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has been trying to learn more about the status of the Americans through its contacts with the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of American-Iranian diplomatic relations.
Elsewhere in Iraq, an Iraqi police official said Saturday that death toll climbed to 44 in a suicide truck bomb attack the day before in a suburb north of Mosul.
The rise in the death toll made it the deadliest day in Iraq since U.S. soldiers withdrew from urban areas more than a month ago. Friday’s attacks in Mosul as well as others in Baghdad targeted primarily Shiite worshippers and pilgrims across the country, leaving a total of 61 dead and more than 200 wounded.
Funerals were under way in Mosul, while rescuers continued to look for victims possibly trapped under the rubble of the mosque and other buildings that collapsed during Friday’s attack, an Iraqi police officer said. The explosion left a 16-foot (5-meter) crater. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media.
The Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party denounced the bombings and blamed Iraqi security forces for failing to protect the people. The attacks against Shiite targets have given rise to fears of renewed sectarian conflict, similar to that which nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007.