New York Times
December 12, 2007
ERBIL, Iraq, Jan. 11 American troops backed by attack helicopters and armored vehicles raided an Iranian diplomatic office in the dead of night early Thursday and detained as many as six of the Iranians working inside.
The raid was the second surprise seizure of Iranians by the American military in Iraq in recent weeks and came a day after President Bush bluntly warned Iran to quit meddling in Iraqi affairs.
There was a tense standoff later in the day between the American soldiers and about 100 Kurdish troops, who surrounded the American armored vehicles for about two hours in this northern Iraqi city.
The attack was denounced by senior Kurdish officials, who are normally America’s closest allies in Iraq but regarded the action as an affront to their sovereignty in this highly tribal swath of the country. Iran’s Foreign Ministry reacted in Tehran with a harsh denunciation that threatened to escalate tensions with the Bush administration.
The American military said that it had been “conducting routine security operations in Erbil Jan. 11 and detained six individuals suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces. One individual was released and five remain in custody.”
American officials have long accused Iran of sending weapons and money into Iraq. In late December the American military detained a number of Iranians in Baghdad, including two diplomats and two who turned out to be senior Iranian military officials. The diplomats were released but the others were forced to leave Iraq under suspicion that they had been working with Shiite militias. The incident also comes at a time when tensions are high between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program.
The incident was a major embarrassment for the Iraqi government, which has been trying to foster initiatives with its neighbor for improving regional security and trade, as well as other issues, and it calls into question the extent of Iraqi control over its own affairs.
In Thursday’s raid, attack helicopters roared above the normally placid neighborhood here, as American troops backed by armored vehicles broke into the office at around 3:30 a.m., carrying away documents and computer equipment.
American Black Hawk helicopters also swooped over the confrontation with the Kurdish troops, and at least two landed, said an American witness. But there were no reports of shots being fired, and the incident ended peacefully.
Witnesses said the attack was directed at a building that an American official described as a liaison office that was properly accredited with Iraq as an Iranian government facility. It was unclear whether the Iranians who were arrested carried diplomatic passports and whether the office was supposed to share some of the immunities enjoyed by embassies and consulates.
Local residents said the main function of the office was to process papers for people who want to go to Iran for visits or medical treatment.
Muhammad Ahmad, who lives near the neighborhood, known as Old Korea, said that he was awakened by shooting and helicopters. “These kinds of actions are totally unacceptable and the Kurdish leadership is very angry,” said Fuad Hussein, the spokesman for the president of the semiautonomous territory, Massoud Barzani. Mr. Hussein called the raid an “abduction.”
The Iranian government said the raid violated international law and demanded the detainees’ release.
“This is a provocative action by the United States and is against all international laws and regulations,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the state-run radio reported.
“The Americans are following two aims,” he said. “They want to continue their pressure against Iran and, secondly, to create tension among Iraq’s neighbors.”
He added: “The provocative and mischievous actions cannot damage the friendly relations with Iraq.”
A senior State Department official said that the Iranian office in Erbil was not technically a consulate, but rather a liaison office which also provided some consular services.
He said that American officials believed that the Iranians intended to turn the office into a consulate at some point, but that had not yet happened. Therefore, he said, the State Department does not consider the office to be Iranian territory.
Thursday afternoon, the Kurdish interior minister, Karim Sinjari, appeared surprised when an American reporter asked him during a meeting with American businessmen to confirm the raid on the liaison.
“Yes,” Mr. Sinjari said tightly. “It was American-led.” Asked for further details, he said: “We have no information. They did it by themselves.” He then cut off questions.
The standoff began around 11 a.m. in Einkawa, a pleasant and predominantly Christian suburb of Erbil where many Western officials live and keep offices. Possibly angered by the earlier raid, the Kurdish forces refused to let several American Humvees through a checkpoint.
“It was the Americans’ fault,” said a Kurdish guard from the checkpoint, who refused to give his name. “We asked them to stop but they did not stop. That is why we pointed our guns at each other.”
The standoff, while tense, was carefully controlled by the Kurds. The American who witnessed it said that as the lines of traffic lengthened on the blocked road, the Kurds began waving cars through and they drove directly past the stopped Humvees.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors in Tehran in protest, and demanded the immediate release of what it called diplomats, the state-run television reported.
The Swiss represent American interests in Tehran. The United States has had no embassy in Iran since 1979, when radical students attacked the American Embassy in Tehran and took 44 diplomats hostage.
Mr. Hosseini told state-run television on Thursday that the consulate in Erbil was set up after coordination with Iraqi officials and that “it was involved in consulate work.”
A measured statement late in the day from Mr. Barzani’s office expressed “its sadness over these actions,” indicating that it believed the building had diplomatic immunity. “It is better to inform the Kurdistan government before taking actions against anybody,” the office said.
The American military said in a statement that “the documents and equipment that were removed will be examined to determine the extent of the alleged illegal or terrorist activity. Based on the outcome of that investigation, appropriate action will be taken regarding the detainees.”