BAGHDAD - In a possible break in the US-Iranian standoff in Iraq, the US military yesterday released nine Iranians no longer deemed a threat, including two accused of membership in an elite force suspected of arming Shi'ite militias.
The handover - planned for several days - still leaves at least three high-profile Iranians in US custody and does not significantly ease the many disputes between Washington and Tehran in Iraq. But it could open the door for another round of groundbreaking talks between the two nations, which have been without diplomatic relations for 28 years.
It also is seen as a possible gesture for Iran's pledge to block suspected cross-border weapons shipments to armed Shi'ite factions, whose attacks have been sharply reduced.
American soldiers delivered the nine men to the offices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where they were met by Iran's ambassador, according to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al- Dabbagh. The former captives arrived in Tehran later yesterday, Iranian state TV said.
The group included two men, identified by the military as Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh, who were among five captured when US forces stormed an Iranian government office in the northern city of Irbil in January.
At the time, US officials accused them of being members of Iran's Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Washington says the organization had been funding, training, and arming Iraqi Shi'ite extremists to fight American forces. Iran said the five were diplomats preparing the Irbil site as a consular office.
The building, along with another Iranian office in Sulaimaniyah, was shut after the Jan. 11 raid. Both offices, in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish zone, reopened Tuesday as Iranian consulates.
A US military statement issued yesterday said the nine Iranians were released after a "careful review of individual records to determine if they posed a security threat to Iraq, and if their detention was of continued intelligence value."
"All nine individuals were determined to no longer pose a security risk," it said.
In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said he hoped the remaining three Iranians arrested in Irbil would also be freed, calling their capture an abduction. The US military continues to hold 11 Iranians, including the three others from the Irbil raid, said Major Brad Leighton, an American military spokesman in Baghdad.
"From the beginning . . . we said they were innocent. Now the US military has confirmed it," Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state radio, speaking of the nine released yesterday. He also said Tehran was open to more discussions with US and Iraqi diplomats, overseen by Iraqi envoys.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the "commanders on the ground" made the decision to free the Iranians after a review by US and Iraqi authorities.
There have been two sessions this year in some of the most direct negotiations between Iran and United States since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The release of the Iranians came a day after US authorities freed 500 Iraqi prisoners, partly as a goodwill gesture and partly to relieve pressure on American-run jails now filled with detainees.
At least 20 people were killed or found dead across Iraq yesterday, police and morgue officials said. Among them was a Sunni tribal leader, Fayez al-Obeidi, who had partnered with US and Iraqi security forces to oust Al Qaeda in Iraq from his neighborhood near Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad.