BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Wednesday it had received an “informal” request for an Iranian consular official to meet five Iranians who have been held in Iraq by U.S. forces since January.
U.S. military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said the five were suspected of being intelligence agents. Iran says they are diplomats and has demanded their immediate release.
“What has occurred so far is that the ICRC has in fact visited with those five people who are in detention,” Caldwell told journalists in Baghdad, referring to the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Among them was an Iranian who is a member of the (ICRC) delegation ...”
“An informal request has come in for a consular visit and it is being assessed at this time,” Caldwell said.
The five were seized in a raid on an Iranian government office in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil in early January and accused of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard group that the U.S. military says supplies weapons to Shi’ite militias.
Caldwell repeated that the five had been detained as part of an operation “going after people alleged to be conducting illegal activities in Iraq. We detained these five personnel who appear to be Iranian intelligence officers”.
Some analysts say the Revolutionary Guards who seized 15 British sailors and marines on March 23 in the northern Gulf may have been acting partly to send a message that Iran would not remain idle while its citizens were detained in Iraq.
Iranian officials dismiss any link between the Britons and the five Iranians in Iraq. Britain and the United States have said they would not get involved in negotiations over any swaps.
Iraq’s foreign minister said a request to visit the five Iranians had been delivered to the U.S. embassy last month.
“I have passed that request to the U.S. embassy around two weeks ago and said that it will be a sign of goodwill if it happens,” Hoshiyar Zebari said.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA quoted a “reliable source” as saying an Iranian representative would be allowed to meet the detainees.
“The American forces’ refusal in the past two months to (allow) the meeting of Iran’s representative and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s consulate with the Iranian diplomats is against international treaties,” the source added.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran