US arrests 5 in Iran consulate raid in Iraq

ERBIL (AFP) — US troops raided an Iranian consulate in Iraq on Thursday and arrested five employees, officials said, as Washington vowed to act against Iranian meddling in the war-torn country.

Iranian officials said American troops swooped on the consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region, in a raid which followed US accusations that Iranian agents are fomenting unrest in Iraq.

The US military confirmed only that its forces had made six arrests in the Erbil area without confirming the suspects’ nationalities.

“We don’t know the reason for this,” an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad told AFP on condition of anonymity. “The Americans arrested five employees and took all the computers and documentation.” The consulate building in Erbil was sealed off by Kurdish security forces, and local officials confirmed that there had been arrests by US forces.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency confirmed that five consulate staff were arrested by American troops in Erbril, reporting that troops confiscated some documents and properties and broke the gate of the office.

The raid came just hours after US President George W. Bush announced he had ordered 21,500 more troops to Iraq and promised to take aggressive steps to curtail what he described as Iranian and Syrian help for insurgents.

Speaking on American television, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran that Washington was determined to “pursue” Iranians trying to disrupt US efforts to stabilise Iraq.

“You will see that the United States is not going to simply stand idly by and let these activities continue,” she said on Fox News television.

Tehran angrily condemned the operation and accused arch enemy Washington of violating international law and stirring up tension among Iraq’s neighbours.

“This is a provocative US action and it is contrary to all international laws, and it is condemned,” foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state- run radio.

“By doing this the Americans are following two aims, firstly to continue their pressure on Iran and secondly to create tension among Iraq’s neighbours.”

“These provocations and mischievous actions cannot tarnish the ongoing friendly relations with Iraq,” Hosseini added, confirming that Iran has asked Iraqi officials to pursue the case.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh told reporters that Baghdad had asked the Americans to clarify who was arrested and why, confirming that the foreign ministry in Baghdad was investigating the matter.

“We need to identify who those people are and why they were arrested. We have an office in Erbil and the foreign ministry in Baghdad is working on this to find out exactly what happened,” he said.

The US military in Iraq confirmed only that six people were arrested in an operation in the greater Erbil area and refused to provide any further details.

“Coalition forces conducted routine security operations in northern Iraq and took six individuals into custody suspected of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces,” it said.

“This operation was part of an ongoing effort by coalition forces targeting individuals involved in activities aimed at the killing of Iraqi citizens and coalition forces,” it added.

The Americans said the six suspects surrendered without incident in what was an ongoing operation, but provided no further details.

Last month, US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said that US forces had detained two Iranian nationals among eight people rounded up on suspicion of weapons smuggling in a raid in Baghdad.

The two were later handed over to Iranian officials in Baghdad.

Tension between Iran and the United States has soared after the UN Security Council recently voted to impose sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme and Tehran vowed to start immediately expanding its capacity to enrich uranium.

Washington accuses Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, a charge vehemently denied by the oil-rich Islamic republic, which says it only wants to provide atomic energy to a growing population.

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