BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi foreign minister said Friday that the five Iranians detained by U.S.-led forces in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq were working in a liaison office that had government approval and was in the process of being approved as a consulate.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, also said U.S. forces tried to seize more people at the airport in Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad, prompting a confrontation with Kurdish troops guarding the facility that was resolved without casualties.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said that after troops detained the people in the building, they got intelligence indicating that another person might have escaped out the back door and fled to the airport.
So an American team was sent to the airport, where they "surprised" Kurdish forces, who apparently had not been informed they were coming and wondered who they were and what they were doing there, said the Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about the incident on the record.
"No shots were fired, no one was injured, it was just a tense situation," said the official, who said it was possible a Kurdish commander had been informed but word had not reached troops at the airport.
The arrests drew condemnation from local Kurdish authorities, who protested that they were not informed in advance, and have raised fears that tensions between Iran and the United States were hurting Iraq's interests.
"We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores with other countries," Zebari said in a TV interview.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office, meanwhile, rejected President Bush's plans to send 21,500 more American troops to Iraq as part of a wide-ranging new effort to curb rampant sectarian attacks.
"We reject Bush's new strategy and we think it will fail," said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, a senior official in al-Sadr's office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
He said Iraq's problems were due to the presence of U.S. troops and called for their withdrawal.
"We call upon the American people to oppose sending more of their sons to Iraq so that they will not be flown back in coffins," he said.
Sectarian violence persisted Friday in the capital, despite a four-hour vehicle ban in the capital aimed at preventing car bombs during weekly Islamic services.
Suspected Shiite militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque with machine guns in a religiously mixed neighborhood of western Baghdad, prompting clashes that wounded two guards, as Friday prayers were ending, local police said.
The clashes ended when national police forces arrived at the scene, and the worshippers left unharmed, according to the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. A witness, who also declined to be identified for fear of reprisals, later said the area came under mortar attack.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last weekend announced his government would implement a new security plan for Baghdad, including neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops. Similar efforts have failed in the past because of the Shiite-dominated government's resistance to cracking down on militias such as the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to al-Sadr.
The Bush proposal calls for up to 12,000 additional Iraqi troops to secure Baghdad, which has been beset by sectarian violence, much of blamed on militias. On Friday, suspected Shiite militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque in a religiously mixed neighborhood, prompting clashes that wounded two guards, as weekly services were ending, police said.
The raids in Irbil came as U.S. officials repeated long-standing accusations that Iran is encouraging the violence in Iraq by supplying money and weapons.
The Iranians were detained Thursday as multinational forces entered the building overnight and confiscated computers and documents, two senior local Kurdish officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Six people suspected of being involved in attacks against Iraqi civilians and military forces were initially detained, the U.S. military said in a statement. One was later released. The statement did not identify the nationalities of the suspects.
Iraqi and Iranian officials initially said the Iranian office raided in Irbil was a diplomatic mission, which raised questions about whether those detained had diplomatic immunity. But Zebari told The Associated Press that the Iranians worked at a "liaison office" that was in the process of becoming a consulate.
"This office is not new and has been there for more than 10 years," he said. "We are now in the process of changing these offices to consulates and ... we will open consulates in Iran."
Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman who initially said it was a diplomatic mission, later changed the description to an "office of relations" and said it was waiting for permission to operate as a consulate.
The U.S. Embassy also said it was assured the building was not a consulate.
The regional Kurdish government condemned the arrest of the Iranians and called for their release. Many Kurds, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have close ties to Iran. Last month, U.S. troops detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity. Two of those detained were visiting as guests of Talabani, his spokesman said.
Zebari also said American forces went to the Irbil airport on Thursday but did not identify themselves or give advance notice to local authorities.
"No party had knowledge of this matter and that is why the force protecting the airport tried to interfere and find out who they were and what they were doing," he said. "Later it became clear that they are American special forces looking for people that did not exist."
The concerns expressed by Kurdish authorities, who have been among the staunchest supporters of U.S. efforts in Iraq, reflected the difficulties they face in trying to maintain close ties with both Iran and the U.S.
In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors and "demanded an explanation" about the Irbil incident. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday that the detained Iranians were being questioned. But the U.S. Embassy declined to give an update on their status on Friday.
In other violence Friday, according to police:
-- Gunmen killed a Shiite man selling vegetables in a stall in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Sadiyah in southern Baghdad, prompting a brief clash between relatives of the victim and other people in the area of the killing.
-- Three bullet-riddled bodies were found near a highway south of Baghdad.
-- Gunmen also killed the mayor of a town northwest of Mosul, along with his wife and 20-year-old son as they were returning from visiting relatives, according to Dakheel Qassim, the mayor of a nearby town. Qassim added that the three bodies were found burned in their car.