IRAQ: The Iranian that got away
Was he an Iranian arms smuggler or a restorer of religious sites? Was that cocaine he had with him, or salt? And who arrested him: Americans, Iraqis, or someone else? All of those questions surround the brief detention last week of an Iranian man accused by U.S. officials of being a senior officer of Iran's elite Quds Force paramilitary unit.
Read more about the strange case of Nader Qorbani here. His quick release could be a sign of Iran's ability to push buttons in Iraq when it wants something done. Or it could be that Qorbani was not quite the catch the United States initially thought he was, so he was let go. One thing became clear during two days of trying to find out more about the arrest and the release: nobody wanted to discuss the details except perhaps an Iranian newspaper that is considered the mouthpiece of Iran's supreme leader. The paper, Kayhan, boasted Monday that Iran had essentially sprung Qorbani through pressure from its embassy in Baghdad.
Qorbani's Nov. 18 detention might have gone unnoticed, except that it occurred against the backdrop of contentious parliamentary debate over the Status of Forces Agreement, which would let American troops remain in Iraq through 2011. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of fueling the violence in Iraq and say it is doing everything it can to derail the SOFA, which legislators are expected to vote on Wednesday. Iran denies the accusations but has made clear it thinks U.S. forces should leave Iraq now, not three years from now. Read more about debate over SOFA here.
On Tuesday, Iranian hard-line newspapers published editorials and stories describing the pact as a sellout to the United States and urging Iraq to reject it, according to the Associated Press. A popular uprising in Iraq will erupt if lawmakers vote for the plan, one newspaper warned, the AP reports.
So when the U.S. military announced the capture of a man described as a senior officer in Iran's elite Quds Force, it seemed like a nab the Americans would not want to let drop from public view. After all, it could bolster the American allegation that Iran was actively meddling in affairs in Iraq at a particularly delicate time. Usually, arrests of suspected terrorists, be they from Al Qaeda in Iraq or from Shiite militias supposedly trained and equipped by Iran, are mentioned prominently in military news briefings after the initial detentions are announced.
This time, that didn't happen.
Two days after the initial news release about Qorbani, Brig. Gen. David Perkins held one of the U.S. military's regular news briefings to update journalists on security and other developments in Iraq. He talked about the killings of recent Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters but made no mention of the Iranian until asked about him. Perkins also was clear in saying that Qorbani had been arrested by Iraqi security forces, not U.S. forces as the news release had suggested.
"And it will be a sovereign decision on the government of Iraq as to what they decide to do with the Al Quds Force officer that Iraqi Security Forces detained," Perkins said.
Fast forward to Saturday night, when the Reuters news agency put out a brief story saying the Iranian had been freed -– not by Iraqis, but by U.S. officials -- again raising the question of who had been holding him. It quoted Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed Abbawi, as saying Iraqi officials had intervened on Qorbani's behalf because he was in Iraq legitimately. Reached by phone Sunday, Abbawi confirmed Iraqi officials had helped free the man, but said he was unsure who exactly had arrested him.
"As long as he's released now, the whole situation is behind us. It doesn't really matter who held him, or who arrested him," said Abbawi, making clear he did not want to talk about it. "Everybody's happy about the outcome." Iraq's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, who would be expected to have details on the case, replied "no comment" when asked about it.
On Sunday, the U.S. military tried to clear up the question of who had arrested Qorbani. It said that security officers from Sabre International Security, a private firm, were behind Qorbani's arrest. Sabre is one of many such companies contracted by the U.S. government and military to provide a variety of security and other services in Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman, Navy Cdr. Abram McGull, the man was then handed over to the Americans "for a brief moment" because he was a suspected Quds Force officer.
"He was in our (U.S. military) custody for less than 24 hours. We received a request from Iraqi officials about him. We released him to them on the 20th," McGull said.
Asked why the Americans would let go of a man suspected of direct involvement in the smuggling of roadside bombs blamed for thousands of U.S. and Iraqi deaths, McGull said it was a matter of respecting Iraq's wishes. "We respected their sovereignty by complying with their request," he said. "Their request was to transfer the individual to their custody."
As for the "white powdery substance" found with the man, McGull said it initially tested positive for cocaine but subsequently was found to be non-narcotic. He wasn't sure what it finally was determined to be, but Reuters quoted an Iranian Embassy official in Iraq as saying it was salt. The amount was about 56 grams, McGull said.
That's at least 10 tablespoonfuls, more than enough to have seasoned the meal on the flight that took Qorbani home to Iran.
-- Tina Susman in Baghdad