TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s top authority said on Saturday that U.S. forces were “the main suspects” in bomb attacks that killed dozens of Iranian pilgrims in Iraq this week.
The comments by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei underscored the deep mistrust between the Islamic Republic and the United States, despite efforts by new President Barack Obama to reach out to Tehran following three decades of mutual hostility.
Predominantly Shi’ite Muslim Iran has often said the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is fomenting instability in the neighboring country. For its part, Washington has accused Tehran of backing Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
“The main suspects in this crime and crimes similar to that, are American security and military forces,” Khamenei said in a statement about two bombings in Iraq on Thursday and Friday.
Quoted by state media, he said “evil hands and minds” had established “blind and uncontrollable terrorism” in Iraq.
On Thursday, most of the 57 people who were killed in a suicide bomb in the northeastern Iraqi province of Diyala were Iranians, who have flocked to Iraq’s Shi’ite holy sites since Sunni Arab strongman Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.
The following day, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up near a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad, killing 60 people. Many of the dead and wounded were Iranian pilgrims.
The attacks raised concerns that a recent decline in bloodshed in Iraq may have been only a temporary lull. While violence has fallen sharply over the past year, insurgent groups like Sunni Islamist al Qaeda still carry out frequent attacks.
The latest attacks in Iraq coincide with growing fears of a resurgence in violence as U.S. combat troops prepare to pull out of Iraqi cities in June, ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011, and amid doubts over the effectiveness of Iraqi forces.
Khamenei said the U.S. forces, on the pretext of confronting terrorism, had occupied an Islamic country and killed tens of thousands of people there.
He also hit out at Israel, another arch-foe: “The growth of the poisonous grass of terrorism in Iraq will definitely be written in America’s criminal record and American and Israeli intelligence services are the first suspects of that.”
Iran has closed two border crossings with Iraq for Iranian citizens after the bomb attacks and Khamenei said Tehran expected the Iraqi government to provide safety for Iranian pilgrims.
Relations between the two neighbors, which fought a 1980-88 war, have improved since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam and a Shi’ite-dominated government came to power in Baghdad.
In a break with the approach of his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama has offered direct talks with Iran on a dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues. Iran says it wants to see a real change in U.S. policy and not just in words.
On a separate issue that could complicate U.S. attempts to improve ties, the defense lawyer of a U.S.-Iranian reporter jailed for spying told the ISNA news agency he had appealed Roxana Saberi’s eight-year sentence handed down on April 18.
Abdolsamad Khorramshahi said he believed the case would be forwarded to an appeals court next week and he hoped for either an acquittal or a reduction in the jail term. Washington has called the espionage charges unfounded and demanded her release.
Editing by Richard Balmforth