BAGHDAD, Iraq – Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms seized an Iranian diplomat as he drove through central Baghdad, officials said Tuesday. Iran said it held the United States responsible for the diplomat's "safety and life."
One Iraqi government official said the Iranian diplomat was detained Sunday by an Iraqi army unit that reports directly to the U.S. military. A military spokesman denied any U.S. troops or Iraqis that report to them were involved.
Iraqis also faced more violence on Tuesday as U.S. and Iraqi forces set up more checkpoints in preparation for a security sweep in Baghdad amid complaints that the operation was moving too slowly.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged that preparations for the crackdown were off to a slow start.
"The operations will unite us and we will take action soon, God willing, even though I have the feeling that we have been late and this delay has started to give a negative message," he said in a meeting with military commanders shown on Iraqi state television.
The Iranian government condemned the seizure of Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, saying he was seized Sunday by gunmen who "operate under the supervision of the American forces in Iraq," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"Iran holds American forces in Iraq responsible for the safety and life of the Iranian diplomat," IRNA quoted him as saying.
The incident comes as tensions have been rising between Iran and the United States and the Shiite-led Iraqi government has shown increasing impatience with both sides for letting their disagreements spill over the border, with the U.S. detentions of at least eight Iranians in recent months.
The White House also has authorized U.S. troops in Iraq to kill or capture Iranian agents deemed to be a threat, saying evidence was mounting that Iran is supporting terrorists inside Iraq and is a major supplier of bombs and other weapons used to target U.S. forces. Iran has denied the charges.
The Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, said the gunmen used American vehicles and the diplomat's seizure appeared to be "within the framework of U.S. president's order to step up encounters with Iranians" in Iraq, Iranian state television reported.
He also told state TV that al-Maliki had appointed a team to investigate the fate of the Iranian diplomat.
There were conflicting descriptions of the abduction.
An official with the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said the diplomat was heading to check on the planned opening of an Iranian bank Sunday in the central Karradah neighborhood when he was seized by men wearing Iraqi army uniforms.
The Iraqi government official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information, said the diplomat was seized at 6 p.m. after his vehicle was intercepted by Iraqi commandos who were part of a unit that reports directly to the U.S. The official said some of the Iraqi troops involved in seizing the diplomat were detained after a gunfight with police but they were released Monday.
Two other Iraqi officials said earlier that the diplomat was kidnapped by gunmen in Karradah, which has been hit by several recent bombings, and they expected negotiations to start to secure his release.
Garver, the U.S. military spokesman, said the American military had not found anything to indicate its units were involved.
The U.S. Embassy spokesman said he could not confirm the reports.
"There appear to be conflicting accounts of this alleged incident and we are in the process of trying to determine the facts," the spokesman, Lou Fintor, said.
A U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in the volatile Anbar province on Monday, the military said Tuesday.
At least nine people were killed in bombs and mortar attacks nationwide, including a parked car bomb that exploded in southern Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding three others, police said.
New checkpoints were set up overnight by Iraqi soldiers and police mainly Shiite southeastern neighborhood of New Baghdad and at the entrances to the Shiite slum of Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia that has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence in the capital.