BAGHDAD – U.S. troops on Sunday detained two suspected weapons smugglers who may linked to Iran's elite Quds force, the military said, as Washington presses allegations that Tehran is supporting violence in Iraq despite plans for new bilateral talks on the issue.
The suspects and a number of weapons were seized during a raid on a rural farm compound in eastern Iraq, near the Iranian border, according to a military statement.
"The suspects may be associated with a network of terrorists that have been smuggling explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), other weapons, personnel and money from Iran into Iraq," the military said, referring to powerful, armor-piercing roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers in recent months.
The announcement came just days after Washington said it was is ready to hold new direct talks with Iran on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq amid U.S. allegations that Tehran is supporting violence Shiite militias in the country.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that no date had been set for the talks had yet to be arranged but suggested that discussions were under way on setting a time for the meeting, which would be the first between the two arch-foes since late May when U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, met Iranian officials in Baghdad.
That May 28 meeting marked a break in a 27-year diplomatic freeze and was expected to have been followed within a month by a second encounter. But tensions have risen over Tehran's detention of four Iranian-American scholars and activists charged with endangering national security. The U.S. has demanded their release, saying the charges against them are false.
At the same time, Iran has called for the release of five Iranians detained in Iraq, whom the United States has said are the operations chief and other members of Iran s elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran says the five are diplomats in Iraq with permission of the government.
Two prominent Iraqi legislators, meanwhile, said prospects were dim for reaching agreement on a U.S.-backed draft oil law before parliament adjourns for an August vacation.
American officials have been pressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament to pass laws that Washington considers crucial to Iraq's stability and the debate on how long U.S. forces should remain, including one on the fair distribution of the country's oil wealth.
But Mahmoud Othman, a Kurd, and Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite Turkoman, said the oil law was not likely to be debated by parliament before September because political leaders have been unable to agree on the legislation.
"There must first be political consensus between the major blocs on the law but there is not enough time for this to be done before the August break," said al-Bayati, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite bloc in the 275-seat house.
The oil law, approved by al-Maliki's Cabinet but not sent to parliament because of major opposition, calls for a fair distribution of the income from Iraq's massive petroleum resources among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis.
Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, have virtually no known oil reserves in their territories yet still oppose the current draft legislation. Kurds, who control large reserves in northern Iraq, oppose the measure because it could loosen their control over a key asset.
American commander Gen. David Petraeus must report to Congress on progress in Iraq by Sept. 15, and the absence of legislative progress will cast a heavy cloud over any attempt to paint a positive picture as the war faces growing opposition in the U.S. Al-Maliki on Saturday called on parliament to cancel its monthlong vacation or at least limit it to two weeks.
The infusion of about 30,000 more American forces, completed last month, was U.S. President George W. Bush's attempt to calm the capital and provide "breathing space" to pass the legislation. But so far nothing of consequence has reached the floor of the parliament and violence has persisted.
A top aide to Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was stabbed to death on Saturday in the holy city of Najaf. Police and al-Sistani's office declined to comment on the killing of Sheik Abdullah Falak al-Basrawi and it was uncertain if it was a product of rising internal rivalries between followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and police who are loyal to al-Sistani, a personal grievance or a broader threat.
Al-Basrawi was the second al-Sistani aide to be killed in just over a month. Sheik Raheem al-Hasnawi was killed in a drive-by shooting south of Najaf in early June.
In Baghdad, mourners held funerals for several people, including women and children, who they claimed were killed in a U.S. airstrike the day before on a Shiite stronghold on the capital's outskirts. Women shrouded in black chanted as men loaded wooden coffins onto the tops of minivans and trucks.
The U.S. military said the airstrike had killed six militants in Husseiniyah, disputing claims by Iraqi officials and relatives of the victims that 18 civilians died in the attack.
Separately, the U.S. military confirmed that Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, had been admitted to a U.S. military hospital after "suffering a fall while walking" at the U.S. detention facility where he is being held.
Aziz, 71, was transported to the military hospital at Balad as a precaution and underwent a CAT scan and other exams, according to a statement. He was found to be in normal condition and was returned to Camp Cropper on Thursday, the military said.
In other violence Sunday, according to police speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns:
— A senior officer working with the Interior Ministry was shot to death as he was driving his car in northeastern Baghdad.
— An Iraqi interpreter working for Americans in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, was killed by gunmen.