BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Nine Iranians being held in Iraq would be released soon, the U.S. military said on Tuesday, just days after U.S. officials signaled a possible change in approach by noting positive Iranian developments in Iraq.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of seven soldiers killed on Monday, making 2007 the deadliest year for its troops in Iraq.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said the Iranians to be released included two who were among five detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq in January on suspicion of providing support to Shi’ite militias. The others were detained over the past several years.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari hailed the announcement, saying it was a confidence-building measure that would encourage more productive talks between Iran, Iraq and the United States on improving security in Iraq.
“We have tried very hard with the American military and the embassy to release them. We are very pleased now that a decision has been made,” Zebari told Reuters by telephone.
The detention of the five Iranians in Arbil in January contributed to a significant rise in tensions between Iran and Iraq, as well as between Tehran and Washington.
“It is our intent to release nine Iranians currently in custody in the near future. They will be released in the coming days,” Smith told a news conference. “Two of them were detained in Arbil in January of this year.”
U.S. forces have said the five detained in Arbil were held on suspicion of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods force. Iran insists they are diplomats and has demanded their release.
“These individuals have been assessed to be of no continuing value, nor do they pose a further threat to Iraqi security,” Smith said.
Smith’s surprise announcement came as Iran opened two consulates in Arbil and Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark the Arbil consulate’s opening before Smith’s announcement, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi repeated Iran’s call for the release of all five held in Arbil.
“We hope the United States will release the five people to return to their jobs,” he told reporters.
Washington accuses Tehran of training Shi’ite militias in Iraq and supplying them with weapons including roadside bombs.
Iran denies the charge and blames violence in Iraq on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has held three rounds of talks this year with his Iranian counterpart on security in Iraq, ending a diplomatic freeze that had lasted almost 30 years but with little to show for the often frank dialogue.
Crocker said on Saturday he expected a further round of meetings in the next few weeks. The talks would focus on Iraqi security and again would not touch on Tehran’s nuclear plans.
Crocker signaled a possible change in tack in U.S. dealings with Iran when he noted on October 25 that there had been several positive developments in Iran’s involvement in Iraq.
While saying Iran’s involvement was still a “mixed, cloudy picture”, Crocker noted the ceasefire ordered by Moqtada al- Sadr, the head of the feared Shi’ite Mehdi Army militia, in August and the sharp drop in mortar attacks on Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
The U.S. military has blamed many of those attacks on Shi’ite militias using Iranian-made weapons.
The deaths of seven U.S. soldiers mean 853 have been killed in Iraq in 2007. The previous highest toll was 849 in 2004.
In the worst attack on U.S. soldiers on Monday, four were killed by a roadside bomb near the oil-refining city of Baiji, 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
U.S. military fatalities dropped significantly in October, with 38 reported for the month, the lowest since March 2006. In total, 3,856 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since 2003.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have credited a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops this year and the growing number of neighborhood police units for sharp falls in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths in the past two months.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Waleed Ibrahim and Missy Ryan in Baghdad; Editing by Keith Weir