U.S. Military in Baghdad Release Iranians to Iraqi Officials

A group of Iranians seized by the U.S. military in a Baghdad hotel were released. The reason for the detention is unclear. But it coincides with a new attack on the Iranian government by President Bush. The president spoke to the American Legion in Reno, Nevada.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A group of Iranians seized yesterday by the U.S. military in Baghdad were released today. Why they were detained in the first place is unclear, but the seizure coincides with a new attack on the Iranian government by President Bush.

The president spoke yesterday to the American Legion in Reno, Nevada.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: We go now to NPR's Corey Flintoff in Baghdad.

And Corey, what exactly happened with those Iranians? Quick kind of detention and then release.

COREY FLINTOFF: Yes. Well, the U.S. military just issued a statement saying that troops stopped the Iranian group at a checkpoint near the Sheraton Hotel. They confiscated some weapons from Iraqis who were acting as a security detail for the Iranians. And later they went into the hotel and searched the group's rooms. They say they took a laptop, cell phones and some cash. The Iranian embassy here says the group was a delegation from Iran's Electricity Ministry and they were here to negotiate contracts with the Iraqi government.

It's interesting that it happened on a day when Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had told reporters that U.S. political power in Iraq is collapsing and that Iran is prepared to step into the power vacuum the U.S. will leave behind. In any case, the Americans released the group to Iraqi officials this morning and they reportedly went straight to a meeting in Prime Minister's Maliki's office. The one thing that seems clear about this is that it's just going to add to the tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

MONTAGNE: Now, beyond that meeting, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the holy city of Karbala where there's been pretty fierce fighting between rivals Shiite militia. At least 50 people have died in that fighting. What's his point in going to the city?

FLINTOFF: Well, one of Maliki's advisers said he's fired a number of local police officials, saying they didn't do their duty when the fighting broke out. He didn't say so but the police who were fired are widely considered to be loyal to the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army. The fighting started yesterday between gunmen from Sadr's Mahdi Army and members of the Badr organization, which is the armed wing of the biggest Shiite political party and it's called the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

These two groups are basically competing for control of southern Iraq, which is the mainly Shiite portion and it sits on top of much of the country's oil wealth. In the meantime, Karbala has been put under an indefinite curfew and only residents are allowed back in. So far, we haven't heard much about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who were forced to run from the fighting. Many of those people arrived in Karbala on foot so it could be very difficult to get them home safely.

MONTAGNE: And I gather that some of that factional fighting that began in Karbala has now spilled over to neighborhoods in Baghdad?

FLINTOFF: Well, yes. Last night, Mahdi Army members attacked and burned the Islamic Council's offices in several Baghdad neighborhoods, including Sadr City. Now our Iraqi reporters are telling us that people in the Shiite areas are preparing for more fighting. We've heard that people are buying provisions with the idea that they might be stuck inside for quite a while and that some homeowners are trying to buy extra ammunition for their AK-47's. One telling detail that I've heard is that the street price of a single bullet has more than doubled to around 90 cents apiece.

MONTAGNE: Corey, thanks very much.

NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking from Baghdad.

Also in Iraq today, the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a six-month suspension of activities by his Mahdi Army. A Sadr aide says the suspension will allow the organization to be, quote, rehabilitated. The Mahdi Army has broken into factions, some of which the U.S. maintains are supplied by Iran.

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