Published on Tuesday, April 3, 2007 by Independent/UK

The Botched US Raid that Led to the Hostage Crisis

by Patrick Cockburn

http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/04/03/275/

A failed American attempt to abduct two senior Iranian security officers on
an official visit to northern Iraq was the starting pistol for a crisis that
10 weeks later led to Iranians seizing 15 British sailors and Marines.

Early on the morning of 11 January, helicopter-born US forces launched a
surprise raid on a long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of
Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. They captured five relatively junior Iranian
officials whom the US accuses of being intelligence agents and still holds.

In reality the US attack had a far more ambitious objective, The Independent
has learned. The aim of the raid, launched without informing the Kurdish
authorities, was to seize two men at the very heart of the Iranian security
establishment.

Better understanding of the seriousness of the US action in Arbil - and the
angry Iranian response to it - should have led Downing Street and the
Ministry of Defence to realise that Iran was likely to retaliate against
American or British forces such as highly vulnerable Navy search parties in
the Gulf. The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were
Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security
Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the
Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.

The two men were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met the
Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the
President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his mountain
headquarters overlooking Arbil.

"They were after Jafari," Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Massoud
Barzani, told The Independent. He confirmed that the Iranian office had been
established in Arbil for a long time and was often visited by Kurds
obtaining documents to visit Iran. "The Americans thought he [Jafari] was
there," said Mr Hussein.

Mr Jafari was accompanied by a second, high-ranking Iranian official. "His
name was General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the
Pasdaran [Iranian Revolutionary Guard]," said Sadi Ahmed Pire, now head of
the Diwan (office) of President Talabani in Baghdad. Mr Pire previously
lived in Arbil, where he headed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Mr
Talabani's political party.

The attempt by the US to seize the two high-ranking Iranian security
officers openly meeting with Iraqi leaders is somewhat as if Iran had tried
to kidnap the heads of the CIA and MI6 while they were on an official visit
to a country neighbouring Iran, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan. There is no
doubt that Iran believes that Mr Jafari and Mr Frouzanda were targeted by
the Americans. Mr Jafari confirmed to the official Iranian news agency,
IRNA, that he was in Arbil at the time of the raid.

In a little-noticed remark, Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign
Minister, told IRNA: "The objective of the Americans was to arrest Iranian
security officials who had gone to Iraq to develop co-operation in the area
of bilateral security."

US officials in Washington subsequently claimed that the five Iranian
officials they did seize, who have not been seen since, were "suspected of
being closely tied to activities targeting Iraq and coalition forces". This
explanation never made much sense. No member of the US-led coalition has
been killed in Arbil and there were no Sunni-Arab insurgents or Shia
militiamen there.

The raid on Arbil took place within hours of President George Bush making an
address to the nation on 10 January in which he claimed: "Iran is providing
material support for attacks on American troops." He identified Iran and
Syria as America's main enemies in Iraq though the four-year-old guerrilla
war against US-led forces is being conducted by the strongly anti-Iranian
Sunni-Arab community. Mr Jafari himself later complained about US
allegations. "So far has there been a single Iranian among suicide bombers
in the war-battered country?" he asked. "Almost all who involved in the
suicide attacks are from Arab countries."

It seemed strange at the time that the US would so openly flout the
authority of the Iraqi President and the head of the KRG simply to raid an
Iranian liaison office that was being upgraded to a consulate, though this
had not yet happened on 11 January. US officials, who must have been privy
to the White House's new anti-Iranian stance, may have thought that bruised
Kurdish pride was a small price to pay if the US could grab such senior
Iranian officials.

For more than a year the US and its allies have been trying to put pressure
on Iran. Security sources in Iraqi Kurdistan have long said that the US is
backing Iranian Kurdish guerrillas in Iran. The US is also reportedly
backing Sunni Arab dissidents in Khuzestan in southern Iran who are opposed
to the government in Tehran. On 4 February soldiers from the Iraqi army 36th
Commando battalion in Baghdad, considered to be under American control,
seized Jalal Sharafi, an Iranian diplomat.

The raid in Arbil was a far more serious and aggressive act. It was not
carried out by proxies but by US forces directly. The abortive Arbil raid
provoked a dangerous escalation in the confrontation between the US and Iran
which ultimately led to the capture of the 15 British sailors and Marines -
apparently considered a more vulnerable coalition target than their American
comrades.

The targeted generals

* MOHAMMED JAFARI

Powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, responsible
for internal security.
He has accused the United States of seeking to "hold
Iran responsible for insecurity in Iraq. and [US] failure in the country."

* GENERAL MINOJAHAR FROUZANDA

Chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the military unit
which maintains its own intelligence service separate from the state, as
well as a parallel army, navy and air force