Iraqi officials announced the release over the weekend of an Iranian man who was arrested by U.S. forces. The U.S. military had accused the suspect of being an Iranian intelligence agent smuggling weapons into Iraq.
The arrest took place Tuesday at Baghdad International Airport, which serves as the main gateway for foreign dignitaries, security contractors, journalists and businessmen coming in and out of Iraq.
An Iraqi airport security guard, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of his position, witnessed the American detention of the Iranian suspect.
He says U.S. forces — who did not appear to be regular enlisted soldiers — cordoned off the entrance to the airport with the help of Stryker military vehicles shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday. Soon after, they stopped and began searching a convoy of three vehicles carrying more than a half-dozen Iranian men and women in civilian clothes.
The Iraqi guard said the convoy caught his attention because it included a bulletproof Mercedes, a similarly armored BMW and a pickup truck escort. "Why would ordinary visitors travel in armored cars?" the guard said.
After a two-hour search, the Iraqi eyewitness said, the Americans detained one of the Iranians, putting a bag over his head.
The next day, the U.S. military identified the suspect as a senior officer in the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who had allegedly been working undercover as a contractor rebuilding Iraqi religious shrines. In a statement released to the media, the military says it targeted the individual "due to his suspected involvement in facilitating Iranian weapons shipments into Iraq." The news release included one unusual detail: "Forces discovered the suspected criminal was carrying an unspecified amount of the illegal drug cocaine."
Some Iraqi newspapers reprinted the news release verbatim.
Several days later, Iraqi officials announced that the detainee had been released after demands from the Iraqi government.
Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi identified the suspect as Nader Qorbani. He said Qorbani's arrest was "unlawful" because he had been legally working in Iraq as a construction contractor.
The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad later confirmed it had asked the Iraqi government to intervene on Qorbani's behalf. An Iranian Embassy spokesman said Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie delivered Qorbani to the Iranian Embassy 24 hours after his arrest.
"They arrested him [Qorbani] because they had the wrong information," the Iranian Embassy spokesman said, on condition of anonymity. "The Americans are always doing things like this in order to obstruct the relationship between Iraq and Iran."
For more than a year, Tehran has demanded the release of five other Iranians it says are diplomats who were arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq.
The U.S. military claims that these Iranians are in fact Revolutionary Guard Corps agents, allegedly involved in training and arming Iraqi militants. According to a recent U.S. military news release, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force "is assessed to provide direct support to multiple extremist groups in Iraq."
In a recent e-mail, Maj. Neal Fisher, a spokesman for the task force in charge of detainees in Iraq, confirmed that as many as 15 Iranian citizens are currently being held in American prison facilities.
The arrests of Iranians by the United States have put the Iraqi government in an uncomfortable position with respect to its much larger neighbor.
Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, told NPR he could not comment on Qorbani's detention. "This is such a sensitive issue," Rubaie said Sunday night. "To say anything about it would be very unintelligent."
When asked about Qorbani's release, U.S. military spokesmen responded in an e-mail, saying "we respectfully complied with the request of the Iraqi government."
As for the cocaine allegations, Cmdr. Abram McGull wrote, "The individual that was detained at BIAP was in possession of a white powdery substance that field tested positive for cocaine. Additional in-depth testing revealed the white powdery substance was not a narcotic."