Fate of Five Detained Iranians Unknown


by Khody Akhavi
WASHINGTON - As the Western media turns its attention to the fate of 15
Britons detained for allegedly trespassing into Iranian waters over the
weekend, the status of five Iranian officials captured in a U.S. military
raid on a liaison office in northern Iraq on Jan. 11 remains a mystery.

Even though high-level Iraqi officials have publicly called for their
release, for all practical purposes, the Iranians have disappeared into the
U.S.-sanctioned "coalition detention" system that has been criticized as
arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law.

Hours before President George W. Bush declared that they would "seek out and
destroy the [Iranian] networks providing advanced weaponry and training to
our enemies in Iraq," U.S. forces raided what has been described as a
diplomatic liaison office in the northern city of Arbil, the capital of
Iraqi Kurdistan, and detained six Iranians, infuriating Kurdish officials in
the process.

The troops took office files and computers, ostensibly to find evidence
regarding the alleged role of Iranian agents in anti-coalition attacks and
sectarian violence in Iraq. One diplomat was released, but the other five
men remain in U.S. custody and have not been formally charged with a crime.

"They have disappeared. I don't know if they've gone into the enemy
combatant system," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who
served in the White House under former President Jimmy Carter. "Nobody on
the outside knows."

A spokesman for the Multinational Forces Iraq (MFI), Lt. Col. Christopher
Garver, told IPS this week from his office in Baghdad, "They are still in
'coalition detention' in accordance with the U.N. Security Council
Resolution 1546, 1637 and 1723." He provided no further information
regarding their status or treatment.

The resolutions endorse the transitional government of Iraq and extend the
mandate of the U.S.-led coalition force into 2007.

The continued detention of the Iranians has escalated tensions between the
U.S. and Iran and may even have set the stage for the seizure by Iranian
forces of 15 British sailors and marines who allegedly crossed into Iranian
waters over the weekend.

"The Iranian group in Iraq was arrested by American forces, and we have been
asking continuously for their release," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar
Zebari told the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh this week, "but this is something
different from the British sailors."

A State Department official with knowledge of the situation said the
Iranians were informed of the status of the diplomats after their detention
through the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the
absence of any U.S. diplomatic presence. He referred all additional
questions to MFI in Baghdad.

Washington severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979, after Iranian students
sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution took 52 staffers hostage at the U.S.
Embassy in Tehran.

During this month's regional meeting in Baghdad in which U.S. officials also
participated, the Iranian delegation requested the release of the five men,
according to a State Department spokeswoman. In response, the Iraqi
government asked the U.S.-led coalition to investigate the circumstances
involving their detention, she told IPS, adding that "the investigation is
not complete, and we don't comment publicly with respect to ongoing

The U.N. Security Council resolution that officially marked the end of the
U.S. occupation and transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi government retains
the U.S. military's right to implement "security detentions". However, any
such detentions should be subject to Iraqi law, according to Scott Horton,
who teaches international law at Columbia University School of Law.

"The Iranians who are being held as 'security detainees' are not being
charged with anything, and so are being held unlawfully," he told IPS.

Under Iraqi law, detainees identified as insurgents who are "actively
engaged in hostilities" - those implicated in attacks on coalition forces
and innocent Iraqi civilians - are supposed to be charged in civilian
courts. They may be held up to 14 days before being brought before a
magistrate and either charged with a crime or released. In order to hold
detainees longer without charging them, detention authorities must provide
justification for doing so, according to Horton.

That such requirements appear to be systematically ignored by U.S. forces
not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and the broader "war on terror",
has fueled criticism of Washington's detention policies and practices by
human rights groups and legal experts around the world.

"The U.S. hasn't articulated the legal grounds under which it detains
'combatants'," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "They
regularly conflate criminal terrorism, innocent civilians, and real
combatants on the ground, and throw them all into the same pot."

"The vagueness of the war on terror has supplied the soil under which all
this has flourished," said Sifton.

U.S. detention camps in Iraq currently hold more than 15,000 prisoners, most
of whom, like the Iranians, have been held without charge or access to
tribunals for months, even years, in some cases, according to a recent New
York Times investigative report.

"It's an exercise of raw power by the U.S. that's not backed by any legal
justification," said Horton. "Legally, it doesn't pass the 'ha ha' test."

The U.N. secretary-general's office has not commented on the detained
Iranians or Iran's detention of the 15 British sailors, describing both
incidents as "disputes between individual states".

"We've left it to the respective countries to work it out among themselves,"
said Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman. "Ultimately it's up to Security Council
members themselves to determine how its resolutions get implemented."

The legal fate of the captured Iranians turns in part on the issue of
whether the two-story building in Arbil that was the target of the Jan. 11
raid was, as Iran claims, an official consulate, in which case its premises
and staff are entitled to diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention,
or rather a liaison office, as U.S. officials contend, which would not be
entitled to the same protections.

Both Iran and the Kurdish regional government have agreed that consular
activities - such as the issuance of visas - had been carried out by office
staff since 1992.

But the U.S. State Department insists that it was not an accredited
consulate and that the five detainees are members of the Quds force, an
elite unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) described by
spokesman Sean McCormack as specialising in "training terrorists and those
sorts of activities".

According to a knowledgeable source at the Iraqi Embassy here, the five were
not accredited diplomats, although they had submitted documents for
accreditation before the raid was carried out. Their applications were being
processed at the time, said the source, who asked not to be identified. The
source also said that the Kurdish regional government had treated them as if
they were indeed accredited.

The raid on the Arbil liaison office was the third in a series of episodes
that targeted Iranian officials operating in Iraq. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces
stopped a car carrying two Iranian diplomats and their guards. The next
morning, soldiers raided the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of
the largest political party in Iraq, and detained two Iranians who turned
out to have been members of the Revolutionary Guard.

After a tense nine-day political standoff, the Iranians were released from
U.S. custody and were ordered by the Iraqi government to leave the country.

As part of extensive review of its diplomatic relations with Iran, the Iraqi
foreign ministry plans to turn all liaison offices in Iraq into consulates,
giving them official diplomatic status, according to the New York Times.

There are 36 Iranian diplomats currently based at Iran's embassy in Baghdad,
as well as 11 at its consulate in Karbala and nine more at another consulate
in the southern city of Basra.