Official Says 2 Americans Held in Iraq on Visa Violations

Two Americans were being questioned Friday by an Iraqi army investigator after they were found without visas in an area of northern Iraq where forces engage in almost daily battles with insurgents.

The two Americans, whose identities were not made public, were detained Sunday in the northern city of Mosul, after they crossed into the area from Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, an Iraqi army official said. He gave no details about why the two were in Iraq.

Maj. Stephen Holt, a U.S. military spokesman, confirmed the Americans were in Iraqi custody. The U.S. Embassy also acknowledged the detentions but did not release details, citing federal privacy laws.

The pair only had entry permits for visiting the Kurdish region and did not have visas needed to visit the rest of Iraq, the Iraqi army official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The two were traveling with a Kurdish translator, who was also detained, and all three were being questioned in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

One of the two Americans was identified by an official in the Kurdish Interior Ministry as an English teacher who had been working for about a year at a private high school in the Kurdish city of Dahuk, 50 miles north of Mosul, near the Turkish border. The other arrived in the region within the last six months, the official said.

Neither of the Americans informed Kurdish officials of their intentions to visit Mosul, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not an official spokesman.

Although the three provinces that make up Iraq's Kurdish region are at odds with the central government over issues involving land and oil, Baghdad has encouraged foreign and Iraqi tourism in the area.

The Kurdish region has largely been spared the violence that struck the rest of the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Americans and Europeans have been among tourists who have visited the area in recent years.

Violence has declined overall in Iraq since 2007, though insurgents routinely target security forces and civilians, in particular Shiite Muslims, whose community has dominated Iraqi politics since Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

Al Qaeda-backed Sunni insurgents have repeatedly struck at Shiites during religious events in an attempt to stoke sectarian strife.

An aide to the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites warned on Friday of possible attacks against pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala. There they will mark the end of 40 days of mourning that follow the anniversary of the seventh-century death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.

He was killed in a battle near Karbala for the leadership of the nascent Muslim nation after Muhammad's death in 632. Hussein's death led to the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

During Friday prayers in Karbala, Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, an aide to Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded Iraqi forces increase security to protect the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims expected to arrive in the city next week.

"More intelligence elements must be deployed to the area where terrorists are expected to launch attacks," he said.

Al-Karbalaie noted that this year's observance of what is known as Arbaeen takes place during the sensitive political period before Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections. U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of a possible increase in violence before the voting.

In an effort to tamp down any behavior that could be viewed as political during Arbaeen, Karbala Governor Amal-Din al-Hir has banned the chanting or use of sectarian slogans.