U.S. moves in Iraq may push Iraqi and Iranian governments closer
The US arrest of an Iranian official to Iraq has resulted in closed borders between the two Middle Eastern countries – a decision that may take an economic toll.
Iran shut most of its border crossings with Northern Iraq on Monday to protest the US military's arrest of an Iranian official who had been visiting Iraq as part of an official delegation.
The detention in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah of the Iranian, who was visiting Iraq at the behest of both the Iraqi central government and the semiautonomous Kurdish government in the north, has brought protests from the Iraqi government as well as rare signs of unhappiness with the US from the Kurds, who are usually the most pro-American of any Iraqi faction, the Associated Press reports.
Iran closed major border crossings with northern Iraq on Monday to protest the U.S. detention of an Iranian official the military accused of weapons smuggling, a Kurdish official said.
The closings came four days after U.S. troops arrested an Iranian official during a raid on a hotel in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.
U.S. officials said he was a member of the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that smuggles weapons into Iraq. But Iraqi and Iranian leaders said he was in the country on official business and with the full knowledge of the government.
"This closure from the Iranian side will have a bad effect on the economic situation of the Kurdish government and will hurt the civilians as well," said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the autonomous Kurdish government. "We are paying the price of what the Americans have done by arresting the Iranian."
US officials have alleged that the arrested man, Mahmudi Farhadi, is not a diplomat as Iraqi and Iranian officials insist, but has instead been involved in smuggling weapons into Iraq.
The matter is the latest in a string of issues that have strained relations between the US and Iraqi governments, with senior Iraqi officials saying US military actions are violating their nation's sovereignty. Agence France-Presse reports that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attacked the detention as has the Iraqi president, an ethnic Kurd.
"I am informing you (the US military) of our displeasure over the arrest of the Iranian civilian official without consulting the government of Kurdistan and that is a humiliation for the regional administration," (Iraqi President Jalal) Talabani said in a statement released by his office in Baghdad.
"He was an official on a commercial mission with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government of Kurdistan," Talabani said in a statement addressed to General David Petraeus, the head of US forces in Iraq, and US ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The incident follows a shootout in central Baghdad last week involving Iraqis and the US military contractor Blackwater USA, which Iraqi officials have alleged was involved in the killings of unarmed civilians. That incident provoked an angry response from Mr. Maliki, who cast the apparent immunity that Blackwater employees seem to enjoy from Iraqi prosecution as another affront to the nation's sovereignty.
Maliki has since backed off from demands that the company stop working in Iraq, but his government remains clearly angry over the incident, Reuters reports.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had vowed to freeze the work of Blackwater, which guards the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and prosecute its staff over what he termed a "flagrant assault" eight days ago but Iraq has since appeared to soften its stand.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that Blackwater's future would rest on the outcome of a joint inquiry by Iraqi and U.S. officials into the conduct of private security companies.
"The government will take the necessary legal measures against Blackwater depending on the investigation's results," Dabbagh said in a statement issued from New York, where Maliki will attend the U.N General Assembly.
"The souls of Iraqis and their dignity are above everything else for us."
The Washington Post reports that Iraq's recent public complaints about Blackwater follow months of more private expressions of concern.
Senior Iraqi officials repeatedly complained to U.S. officials about Blackwater USA's alleged involvement in the deaths of numerous Iraqis, but the Americans took little action to regulate the private security firm until 11 Iraqis were shot dead last Sunday, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Before that episode, U.S. officials were made aware in high-level meetings and formal memorandums of Blackwater's alleged transgressions. They included six violent incidents this year allegedly involving the North Carolina firm that left a total of 10 Iraqis dead, the officials said.
The lack of a U.S. response underscores the powerlessness of Iraqi officials to control the tens of thousands of security contractors who operate under U.S.-drafted Iraqi regulations that shield them from Iraqi laws. It also raises questions about how seriously the United States will seek to regulate Blackwater, now the subject of at least three investigations by Iraqi and U.S. authorities. Blackwater, which operates under State Department authority, protects nearly all senior U.S. politicians and civilian officials here.
With Iran coming under allegations from the US that it's running weapons into Iraq, Blackwater has also been hit by allegations of gun-running of its own, with Turkish complaints that weapons might have flowed from members of the company to a separatist group in the south of that country, the BBC reports.
The weapons smuggling allegations were reported by the News and Observer newspaper in North Carolina.
It quoted two unnamed sources as saying US federal prosecutors were investigating whether any Blackwater staff had shipped weapons, night-vision scopes, armor, gun kits and other equipment to Iraq, without the required permits.
In Saturday's statement, Blackwater said the allegations that it was "in any way associated or complicit in unlawful arms activities are baseless".
In July, Turkey complained to the US that they had seized American weapons from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organisation by Washington.
Investigators are reportedly attempting to determine if any Blackwater weapons could have been sold on the black market and ended up in the hands of the PKK.