U.S., Iran Clash over Five Arrests in Iraq

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A diplomatic spat is brewing in Baghdad, after Iran's ambassador accused U.S. forces of kidnapping five of its citizens and claimed the American actions violated Iraqi sovereignty.

There are mixed messages coming out of the Iraqi camp. Its foreign minister called for the Iranians' release, while the government spokesman is siding with the Americans.

Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazimi Qomi, invited reporters to the embassy in the center of Baghdad. He rarely holds such meetings, but Qomi had a very important message to get out.

"This is an insult to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government," Qomi said. "These incidents will prompt other countries not to send their diplomats to Iraq."

His anger at the U.S. government for arresting five Iranians here last week has spilled over to the Iraqi government and what Qomi sees as its failure to control the U.S. military.

The U.S. military insists the Iranians in its custody are not diplomats. Earlier in the week Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, told a news conference there was no doubt about that.

"We have statements made by people in detention and we have records that give us great confidence that these are in fact intelligence operatives," Casey said.

Ambassador Qomi says he was assured by the Iraqi foreign minister that the men would be released soon. But then Ali Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, echoed the U.S. military statements. He said the men were involved in training and funding insurgents who attack U.S. forces in Iraq. They were not diplomats, he said, and Iraq's neighbors need to respect action taken by the U.S. military and its allies.

"The multinational forces are here because of a decision made by the Iraqi government, so targeting their soldiers is considered destructive to the government's efforts," Dabbagh said.

Dabbagh insisted that Iraq's neighbors must respect its sovereignty.

Qomi, the Iranian ambassador, suggested the Iraqis could do a better job of enforcing their own sovereignty. He said the only way for the Iraqi government to restore security to the country was to take control back from the Americans. He told NPR the U.S. should also lay down a timetable for withdrawing all its troops.

"We see a contradictory approach from the Americans in their speech and in their action," Qomi said. "On the one hand, the Americans say that they want to give the Iraqi authorities full sovereignty... But they are not doing this on a practical level. The biggest proof on this is that they want to increase the number of their troops."

Qomi was equally dismissive of the new military strategy for Baghdad. He thinks the way to combat terrorism is to improve relations within the region. But the U.S. government refuses to speak directly to Iran. The U.S. accuses Iran and Syria of funneling weapons, funds and fighters into Iraq to battle U.S. forces and to destabilize the country.

Analysts here say Iraq has become a battleground where Sunni countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia fight Shiite Iran for supremacy in the region. But Qomi, rejects that, saying an unstable iraq would only be bad for Iran.

"From Iran's point of view, Iraq will not be a place to settle scores with others," he said. "We want a clear and transparent relationship with Iraq."

Meanwhile the five Iranians captured in the raid are still in U.S. custody. Gen. Casey said military investigations continue.

Qomi says if the men are really guilty of supporting insurgents, his government wants to see solid evidence.

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