WASHINGTON - As the Western media turns its attention to the fate of 15 Britons detained for allegedly trespassing into Iranian waters over the weekend, the status of five Iranian officials captured in a U.S. military raid on a liaison office in northern Iraq on Jan. 11 remains a mystery.
Even though high-level Iraqi officials have publicly called for their release, for all practical purposes, the Iranians have disappeared into the U.S.-sanctioned "coalition detention" system that has been criticized as arbitrary and even illegal by many experts on international law.
Hours before President George W. Bush declared that they would "seek out and destroy the [Iranian] networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq," U.S. forces raided what has been described as a diplomatic liaison office in the northern city of Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and detained six Iranians, infuriating Kurdish officials in the process.
The troops took office files and computers, ostensibly to find evidence regarding the alleged role of Iranian agents in anti-coalition attacks and sectarian violence in Iraq. One diplomat was released, but the other five men remain in U.S. custody and have not been formally charged with a crime.
"They have disappeared. I don't know if they've gone into the enemy combatant system," said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who served in the White House under former President Jimmy Carter. "Nobody on the outside knows."
A spokesman for the Multinational Forces Iraq (MFI), Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, told IPS this week from his office in Baghdad, "They are still in 'coalition detention' in accordance with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546, 1637 and 1723." He provided no further information regarding their status or treatment.
The resolutions endorse the transitional government of Iraq and extend the mandate of the U.S.-led coalition force into 2007.
The continued detention of the Iranians has escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran and may even have set the stage for the seizure by Iranian forces of 15 British sailors and marines who allegedly crossed into Iranian waters over the weekend.
"The Iranian group in Iraq was arrested by American forces, and we have been asking continuously for their release," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh this week, "but this is something different from the British sailors."
A State Department official with knowledge of the situation said the Iranians were informed of the status of the diplomats after their detention through the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of any U.S. diplomatic presence. He referred all additional questions to MFI in Baghdad.
Washington severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979, after Iranian students sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution took 52 staffers hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
During this month's regional meeting in Baghdad in which U.S. officials also participated, the Iranian delegation requested the release of the five men, according to a State Department spokeswoman. In response, the Iraqi government asked the U.S.-led coalition to investigate the circumstances involving their detention, she told IPS, adding that "the investigation is not complete, and we don't comment publicly with respect to ongoing investigations."
The U.N. Security Council resolution that officially marked the end of the U.S. occupation and transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi government retains the U.S. military's right to implement "security detentions". However, any such detentions should be subject to Iraqi law, according to Scott Horton, who teaches international law at Columbia University School of Law.
"The Iranians who are being held as 'security detainees' are not being charged with anything, and so are being held unlawfully," he told IPS.
Under Iraqi law, detainees identified as insurgents who are "actively engaged in hostilities" -- those implicated in attacks on coalition forces and innocent Iraqi civilians -- are supposed to be charged in civilian courts. They may be held up to 14 days before being brought before a magistrate and either charged with a crime or released. In order to hold detainees longer without charging them, detention authorities must provide justification for doing so, according to Horton.
That such requirements appear to be systematically ignored by U.S. forces not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and the broader "war on terror", has fueled criticism of Washington's detention policies and practices by human rights groups and legal experts around the world.
"The U.S. hasn't articulated the legal grounds under which it detains 'combatants'," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "They regularly conflate criminal terrorism, innocent civilians, and real combatants on the ground, and throw them all into the same pot."
"The vagueness of the war on terror has supplied the soil under which all this has flourished," said Sifton.
U.S. detention camps in Iraq currently hold more than 15,000 prisoners, most of whom, like the Iranians, have been held without charge or access to tribunals for months, even years, in some cases, according to a recent New York Times investigative report.
"It's an exercise of raw power by the U.S. that's not backed by any legal justification," said Horton. "Legally, it doesn't pass the 'ha ha' test."
The U.N. secretary-general's office has not commented on the detained Iranians or Iran's detention of the 15 British sailors, describing both incidents as "disputes between individual states".
"We've left it to the respective countries to work it out among themselves," said Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman. "Ultimately it's up to Security Council members themselves to determine how its resolutions get implemented."
The legal fate of the captured Iranians turns in part on the issue of whether the two-story building in Arbil that was the target of the Jan. 11 raid was, as Iran claims, an official consulate, in which case its premises and staff are entitled to diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention, or rather a liaison office, as U.S. officials contend, which would not be entitled to the same protections.
Both Iran and the Kurdish regional government have agreed that consular activities -- such as the issuance of visas -- had been carried out by office staff since 1992.
But the U.S. State Department insists that it was not an accredited consulate and that the five detainees are members of the Quds force, an elite unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) described by spokesman Sean McCormack as specialising in "training terrorists and those sorts of activities".
According to a knowledgeable source at the Iraqi Embassy here, the five were not accredited diplomats, although they had submitted documents for accreditation before the raid was carried out. Their applications were being processed at the time, said the source, who asked not to be identified. The source also said that the Kurdish regional government had treated them as if they were indeed accredited.
The raid on the Arbil liaison office was the third in a series of episodes that targeted Iranian officials operating in Iraq. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces stopped a car carrying two Iranian diplomats and their guards. The next morning, soldiers raided the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest political party in Iraq, and detained two Iranians who turned out to have been members of the Revolutionary Guard.
After a tense nine-day political standoff, the Iranians were released from U.S. custody and were ordered by the Iraqi government to leave the country.
As part of extensive review of its diplomatic relations with Iran, the Iraqi foreign ministry plans to turn all liaison offices in Iraq into consulates, giving them official diplomatic status, according to the New York Times.
There are 36 Iranian diplomats currently based at Iran's embassy in Baghdad, as well as 11 at its consulate in Karbala and nine more at another consulate in the southern city of Basra.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.