The US military's announcement Tuesday that it plans to release nine Iranians held in Iraq comes amid growing signals that both the US and Iran are seeking to ease tensions over Iraq.
The US has accused Iran of providing insurgents weaponry to target US forces, something Iran has denied. But Rear Adm. Greg Smith said Tuesday that recent weapons and ammunition finds provide "evidence" that Iran has decreased its shipments to Iraq of rockets and sophisticated roadside bombs, which have taken a heavy toll on US forces this year. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that it was "too early to tell" if the drop in attacks was due to any Iranian effort. But he and US commanders noted a nearly 50 percent drop in attacks using explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) from July to October.
In Tehran, analysts say the release, long sought by Iran, may be a quid pro quo. "Maybe this is reciprocity for the reduction of violence in Iraq," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, of Tehran University. "It is definitely a sign from both sides that they are trying to send signals to each other, to disengage, to calm things down."
Of the nine Iranians released, two were from a group of five detained by US forces in a raid Arbil in January. Iran immediately demanded their release, but the US military said they were agents engaged in anticoalition activity and caught with a "treasure trove" of intelligence. Three of the group are still being held.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the release of the Iranians is not connected to postive if uncertain signs that Iran may be trying to stem the flow of shipments of bomb-making materials, including EFPs.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari hailed the move as "a very important decision," saying that the Iraqi government played an important role in securing the release of the nine detainees. He said the actual handover of the Iranians will be facilitated by the Iraqi government.
"We are very delighted that such a decision has been taken," he told the Monitor. "[I]t will help build confidence.... It will remove one of the sticking points that will make [US-Iranian] dialogue move forward to produce some results to stabilize Iraq."
Also on Tuesday, Tehran announced the opening of a new consulate in Arbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish north. Foreign Minister Zebari said another Iranian consulate will open soon in Kurdistan's second-largest city, Suleimaniyah, after Iraq opened three consulates in Iran. Ties between Iraq and Iran have been rapidly increasing, with trade between both nations amounting to more than one billion dollars last year of which half involving Kurdistan.
A Dubai-based Gulf analyst says the Iranians' release came after the US military got the intelligence it needed – and recognized it had little prospect of having the Iranians tried on espionage or terror charges by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys warm ties with Tehran. "They have reached a point where they cannot keep them unless they do something legally," says Mustafa al-Ani of the Gulf Research Center. "It's also sending a positive signal, part of the carrot and stick."
Zebari said the release will bode well for another round of talks between Iranian and US diplomats that is expected to be held shortly in Baghdad. The last meeting between Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq, and his Iranian counterpart took place in July in the presence of top Iraqi officials.
In a briefing on Oct. 26, Mr. Crocker appeared to have mixed thoughts on how much Iran was responsible for the reduction in violence by Shiite militias – and its future intentions in Iraq. "I think it continues to be a mixed and cloudy picture. We've seen some interesting developments – for example, over the last couple of months, a virtual cessation of indirect fire on the international zone," he said referring to mortar attacks on the fortified area that houses the US Embassy.
He took note of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's announcement in August, calling on his Mahdi Army to stop its activities. But, he asked, "What are Iranian intentions? There have been indications again that, looking to Lebanon and their role there, that they have been working on the Hizbullah-ization of at least parts of Iraq, to use militant groups, particularly Jaish al Mahdi, as a means of asserting Iran's influence, weakening the government, and by indirection, by proxy, exerting control in Iraq."
And in contrast to the relatively calm situation in Baghdad, tensions have been rising in the largely Shiite provinces south of the capital, where Iran is influential.
Tensions are high in the city of Diwaniyah after the arrest of dozens of Sadr partisans over the past few weeks and clashes between Sadrists and members of the security forces loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the Badr Organization, two Shiite parties close to Iran.
In the shrine city of Karbala, where fighting in August between Sadrists and forces loyal to SIIC and Badr led to Sadr's decision to freeze his militia, the deputy governor, who is a Sadrist loyalist, fled the city and is in hiding now in Baghdad. In a telephone interview with Al-Arabiya television, he accused pro-Iranian forces of plotting to kill him.
In the southern port city of Basra, which is in the grips of Shiite militias, the police chief and the overall head of security appointed by Mr. Maliki both escaped assassination attempts Sunday.
A former commander in the Mahdi Army who has left Iraq, Abu Zeinab al-Saidi, told the London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat that Iran's elite Quds Force was reinforcing its positions in Karbala and Baghdad's Sadr City in anticipation of any US strike against Iran's nuclear installations. He also said Iran was training splinter groups of the Mahdi Army in the south. close the Iranian border.
• Scott Peterson in Tehran and Gordon Lubold in Washington contributed.