BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi foreign minister called Sunday for the release of five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in what he said was a legitimate diplomatic mission in northern Iraq, but he stressed that foreign intervention to help insurgents would not be tolerated.
The two-pronged statement by Hoshyar Zebari highlighted the delicate balance facing the Iraqi government as it tries to secure Baghdad with the help of American forces while maintaining ties with its neighbors, including U.S. rivals Iran and Syria.
"Any interventions — or any harmful interventions to kill Iraqis or to provide support for insurgency or for the insurgents should be stopped by the Iraqi government and by the coalition forces," Zebari said in an interview with CNN's "Late Edition."
But he also stressed Iraq has to keep good relations with its neighbors in the region.
"You have to remember, our destiny, as Iraqis, we have to live in this part of the world. And we have to live with Iran, we have to live with Syria and Turkey and other countries," he said. "So in fact, on the other hand, the Iraqi government is committed to cultivate good neighborly relations with these two countries and to engage them constructively in security cooperation."
The U.S. military said the five Iranians detained last week in the Kurdish-controlled northern city of Irbil were connected to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents in Iraq. It was the second U.S. raid targeting Iranians in Iraq in less than a month.
The military said the Quds Force faction of the Revolutionary Guard, a hard-line military force that reports directly to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is "known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the Government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces."
"Al-Quds" is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and a frequent term for political or military factions across the Muslim world.
Iran's government denied the five detainees were involved in financing and arming insurgents and called for their release along with compensation for damages.
"Their job was basically consular, official and in the framework of regulations," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Sunday. "What the Americans express was incorrect and hyperbole against Iran in order to justify their acts."
In Nicaragua, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the U.S. was trying to hide its failures in Iraq by accusing his nation of funding Iraqi insurgents. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of his meeting with Nicaragua's president, Ahmadinejad ducked the question of whether his country was in fact arming and supporting insurgents responsible for attacks in Iraq.
The United States repeatedly has denied the office targeted in the raid was a consulate, and the State Department has said no legitimate diplomatic activity was being carried out at the site.
Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday that the U.S. had the authority to pursue Iranians in Iraq because they "put our people at risk."
"We are going to need to deal with what Iran is doing inside Iraq," he said.
Vice President Dick Cheney added: "Iran is fishing in troubled waters inside Iraq."
Hadley was interviewed on "This Week" on ABC while Cheney was on "Fox News Sunday."
Zebari, a Kurd, said those detained had been working in a liaison office issuing travel permits for the local population, and he reiterated that the office was in the process of being regularized into a consulate.
"Well, we have asked for their release," he told CNN. "They are being interrogated by the U.S. forces. But we have established all the information that this office has been there for many years with the approval of the Kurdish regional authorities with their knowledge of the Iraqi government."
Bush accused Iran and Syria of not doing enough to block terrorists from entering Iraq over their borders in his speech last week outlining his new strategy for Iraq. The U.S. has accused them of funneling arms and fighters to aid the insurgency.
In another indication of Iraqi efforts to reach out to neighbors hostile to the U.S., Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited Syria on Sunday, becoming the first Iraqi president to travel to the country in nearly three decades.
Syria's official news agency SANA said the talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Talabani focused on "bilateral relations," and that both sides expressed a desire to strengthen ties between their countries. Assad also stressed Syria's readiness to help Iraq achieve national reconciliation and political stability to help end the increasing sectarian violence in the country, the state news agency said.
Mahmoud Othman, an Iraqi lawmaker close to Talabani, said the Syria trip was not intended as a snub to Bush. It had been planned for nearly a year, but its date was finalized about two weeks ago, he said from Baghdad.
Hosseini, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the United States was resorting to "hostility and conflict toward neighbors of Iraq" because it did not want to acknowledge it had failed to stabilize Iraq.
There is already a standoff between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran's atomic program. Iran has rejected all allegations that it is trying to make nuclear arms.
The Iraqis and the Americans, meanwhile, prepared for a new joint security operation to secure Baghdad as it faces spiraling sectarian violence.
Bush said Wednesday that additional 21,500 U.S. troops will head to Iraq soon to try improve the security situation mainly in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar.
At least 78 people were reported killed or found dead on Sunday, including 41 bullet-riddled bodies discovered in Baghdad. The U.S. military also said an American soldier died Saturday in an explosion in northern Iraq, while a roadside bomb killed a soldier Sunday and wounded four others in Baghdad.
Separately, the Iraqi army arrested 50 suspected insurgents and seized nearly 2,000 rockets in a raid in a predominantly Shiite area 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Shaker said. The suspects were detained late Saturday.
The Iraqi army arrested 32 other suspected insurgents during house-to-house searches in Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad, Shaker said. They also seized seven cars packed with light weapons and 40 barrels of chemicals that could be used in making explosives.