Friday, January 19, 2007

U.S. Deadlocked on Whether To Free Iranian Terror Suspects

WASHINGTON — The American government is deadlocked on the issue of whether to allow five Iranians captured last Wednesday in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil to return home, according to three administration officials.

While the five individuals picked up in last week's raid have been determined not to have diplomatic immunity, as Iran's Foreign Ministry has insisted, it is still unclear whether Tehran might prevail in the standoff. The military has said those detained were members of Iran's elite al-Quds force, a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is in charge of anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism.

On one side of the bureaucratic debate are the CIA and the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. According to one administration official familiar with the debate, they argue that the prolonged detention of the suspected Quds force operatives will provoke a further escalation with Iran and scuttle the Iraqi government's plan to help secure Baghdad with American soldiers. On the other side of the debate are the Pentagon's special operations office, the Marines, and the Army — which have pleaded that the captured Iranians are too great a danger to American forces to return to Iran.

A group of suspected Quds force operatives carrying diplomatic credentials, who were captured in a December 21 raid at the compound of Iranian Shiite political leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, were allowed to return home earlier this year.

The outcome of the bureaucratic debate will be a good measure of the seriousness of the president's new war strategy for Iraq. Last Wednesday, Mr. Bush pledged to interrupt terrorist supply lines originating in Iran and Syria, to disrupt attacks from terrorists supported by both countries, and to "seek out and destroy the networks

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