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The five Iranian officials whose abduction in an a US helicopter raid in January led to a crisis in relations between the US and Iran could be released in June according to the Iraqi foreign minister.
In an interview in Baghdad, Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said that legally the US can only hold the Iranians for six months. It must then charge them, hand them over to Iraq or release them.
The Iranians were captured when the US launched a surprise raid on a long-established Iranian office in Arbil, the Kurdish capital in northern Iraq, on 11 January. Mr Zebari confirmed that the real targets were two senior Iranian security officials, the deputy head of Iran’s National Security Council and General Minojahar Farouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Both men were on an official visit to northern Iraq at the time of the US attack during which they had seen Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Misled by the presence of their official car at the liaison office in Arbil – although they were in Mr Barzani’s headquarters at Salahudin – US forces tried and failed to seize them.
Mr Zebari said there was “a possibility they will be released”. This is because under an agreement governing such detentions the US “can detain them for 90 days and this can be renewed once. This is the military rule for holding such people: charge them, hand them over to the Iraqi authorities or release them. The time for their detention will expire in June when a decision will have to be made.”
The Arbil raid came after George Bush made a speech on 10 January, identifying Iran and Syria as prime enemies of the US in Iraq. Mr Zebari has been outspoken in demanding their release, He said that since the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting last week the Iranian prisoners have been allowed to receive family visits.
Mr Zebari, Foreign Minister of Iraq since 2004, is one of the few successful and internationally highly regarded ministers in post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government. He said that both the US and Iran had to realise that the other has a stake in what is happening in Iraq. “No matter how dismissive the Iranians are about not talking to the Americans, the Americans are players here. And even if the Americans view the Iranians negatively they are here; they are players whether we want it or not.” Mr Zebari is triumphant over the success of the summit on Iraq held in Sharm el-Shaikh last week, seeing it as an early step in defusing confrontation between Tehran and Washington. He pointed out that, unlike most of Iraq’s Arab neighbours, Iran supports the present government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Iran doesn’t want to bring down this government,” he says. “It’s friendly, its Shia-led; they know everybody in it. They could not find a better government in a lottery. It came to power legitimately through the popular will of the people.” Arab countries dislike the government because it is essentially a Shia-Kurd coalition and is democratically elected. Saudi Arabia recently spoke of the “illegal occupation”. Iraq is also opposed to the US negotiating unilaterally with Syria and Iran, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report, without the Iraqi government being part of the process and the discussions being focussed on Iraq.
Mr Zebari is convinced that a US withdrawal at this stage would lead to the disintegration of Iraq, an explosive expansion of militias as each community sought to defend itself and a triumph for al-Qa’ida. He does not sound impressed by the “surge” and attempts to regain control of Baghdad, saying: “It has made improvements but not great improvements.”
He wants the Iraqi government to push ahead with reconciliation with Sunni insurgents, action against the militias, modification of the constitution and de-Baathification. This could be a case of showing willing rather than expecting results. He himself points out that the key leaders of insurgent groups, that operate under a bewildering series of names, are mostly former officers in Hussein’s Special Republican Guards and are likely to prove irreconcilable.