5 Iranians held by US in Iraq are welcomed home
Americans say move puts troops at risk
TEHRAN - Five Iranian officials held in Iraq for more than two years by US forces returned home yesterday after the United States released them under pressure from the Iraqi government.
American officials said a US-Iraqi security agreement required that they hand the men over. But they also said they fear that the Iranians - held on suspicion of aiding Shi’ite militants - pose a threat to US troops in Iraq.
The five men were handed over to Iraqi officials Thursday and flew yesterday to Tehran. There they were met at the airport by a cheering crowd of onlookers who carried the men on their shoulders and put garlands of flowers around their necks.
In a news conference with the men, Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, welcomed them back to Iran and praised what he described as their courageous resistance while they were held in Iraq by US forces.
The Iranians were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in January 2007. At the time, US authorities said the men included the operations chief and other members of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants.
Iran denied the claim, and has described the men as diplomats who were kidnapped by US forces. Mottaki accused President Obama of continuing the bullying practices of his predecessor.
“Iran preserves its right for legal action against the bullying act of the Bush administration in detaining Iranian diplomats, which was unfortunately continued in the new administration,’’ Mottaki was quoted as saying by Iranian television.
The United States has long charged that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq and that Tehran has been financing and assisting Shi’ite militias in attacks against US and Iraqi forces.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier that the transfer could help improve dialogue between the United States and Iran after a decades-long adversarial relationship.
Under a security pact with Iraq that went into effect in January, the United States must hand over Iraqi and foreign detainees in its custody.
Iran and Iraq have enjoyed better relations after the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, who launched an eight-year war against Iran in the early 1980s.
Many current Iraqi leaders were in exile in Iran and still have close ties with Tehran.
The release of the five has been portrayed in Iran as a victory for the Islamic Republic at a time when the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under domestic and international criticism following the disputed June 12 presidential election and the ensuing government crackdown on protests.
The opposition insists the election, in which Ahmadinejad was declared the overwhelming winner, was fraudulent and has staged protest rallies calling for a new vote.
Iran has accused foreign powers - the United States and Britain, in particular - of fomenting the unrest.
Yesterday, one of Iran’s vice presidents warned Western powers against meddling in the country, calling it a “lose-lose’’ situation.
Parviz Davoudi said such interference would backfire and destabilize the West, too, because Iran has influence in many parts of the world.
“If you plan to fight Iran and destabilize it, you have to know that instability in Iran would lead to flux in the entire region and world,’’ the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Addressing the opposition, whose street protests have largely been quelled by security forces, Davoudi said they should not pin their hopes on the West, saying, “The system which you want to rely on faces a dead end and defeat.’’
Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations since 1979, when militant students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held Americans there hostage for 444 days.
However, Tehran and Washington held three rounds of ambassador-level talks on security in Iraq in 2007.