G.I.’s in Iraq Raid Iranians’ Offices
By JAMES GLANZ
Published: January 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
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
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
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
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.”
Reporting was contributed by Yerevan Adham from Erbil, Iraq, Helene Cooper
from Washington and Nazila Fathi from Tehran.