Iraqi officials said Thursday that multinational forces detained as many as six Iranians in an overnight raid on Tehran's diplomatic mission in the northern city of Erbil.
The forces stormed the building at about 3 a.m., detaining the five staffers and confiscating computers and documents, two senior local Kurdish officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Erbil is a city in the Kurdish-controlled north, 220 miles from Baghdad."There are reports that six people were detained but now we want clarification from the American side and from the Iranian side about these people and what they were doing there and whether they were employees," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said during a news conference. He added that the foreign ministry is contacting concerned sides "and then we can take an official stance on the matter."
In Tehran, Iran's foreign ministry summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors and "demanded an explanation" about the incident. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran, where there is no U.S. Embassy.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state-run radio that the raid was "against a diplomatic mission" since the "presence of Iranian staffers in Erbil was legal." Hosseini claimed the action by the U.S.-led coalition reflected "continuation of pressure" on Iran, aiming to "create tension" between Iraq and its neighbors.A resident living near the mission said the foreign force used stun bombs in the raid and brought down an Iranian flag that was on the roof of the two-story yellow house. As the operation went on, two helicopters flew overhead, said the resident on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
"They took five Iranians with them and at about 7 in the morning they handed over the house to Kurdish peshmergas [fighters]," he said.
In the early afternoon, a number of Kurdish guerrillas could be seen around the building preventing people from getting close to the house and not allowing cameramen and photographers to take pictures.
In Other Developments:
The U.S. military issued a statement on the raid in Erbil, saying it had taken six people into custody but made no mention of a raid on the Iranian consulate. It declined further comment on the raid.
The motive for the raid was not known, but it came as tensions are high between Iran and the United States. The Bush administration has accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and of helping fuel violence in Iraq. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is trying to expand Iran's role in Iraq as a counter to U.S. influence in the Gulf region.
The new strategy declared by U.S. President George. W. Bush in the past hours ignored key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which in December called for a new diplomatic offensive and an outreach to Syria and Iran. Instead, he accused both countries of aiding terrorists and insurgents in Iraq.
"We will disrupt the attacks on our forces," Mr. Bush said. "We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria."
Speaking on how bad relations between the United States, Iran and Syria affect Iraq, al-Dabbagh said "for sure any improvement (of relations) between the United States and these two countries will make us avoid many problems."
"Some times we pay the price for the tension in relations between Iran and the United States and Syria and the United States, therefore it is in our interest as Iraqis that these relations improve but not at the expense of Iraq," he said. "For that reason, we hope, encourage and are playing a role in getting the points of view closer between" them.
Late last month, U.S. troops elsewhere in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity.