Iran angrily blamed the United States on Friday after at least three of its diplomats were wounded in a Baghdad shooting, saying the Americans are encouraging attacks on Iranians in Iraq.
The United States defended the actions of Iraqi security forces, but said Americans were not involved in the incident and that the U.S. "condemns any attack on guests or visitors of any country."
The shooting — which may have been by Iraqi soldiers during an argument at a checkpoint — comes amid unprecedented strains between Iran and the Iraqi leadership, which has long been close to Tehran.
With the U.S. and an emboldened Tehran jostling for power and influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the Mideast, Iranian officials have complained in recent weeks that Iraq's Shiite-dominated leadership is bowing too much to Washington. The tensions have been fueled in part by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's crackdowns in the past two months against Shiite militiamen. The U.S. accuses Iran of backing the militiamen, a claim Tehran denies.
Incident near shrine
The shooting occurred Thursday as the Iranians' convoy approached a bridge leading to a Shiite shrine in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah.
An Interior Ministry official said Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint on the bridge exchanged fire with the convoy's guards during an argument that broke out when most of the Iranians failed to produce identification cards. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
A different account came from an Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad, Qassim Atta, who said "unknown gunmen" were behind the attack.
Iranian Embassy spokesman Manoucher Taslimi said he did not know who the gunmen were.
There were varying reports on how many were wounded.
Taslimi said two Iranian diplomats, another Iranian and an Iraqi administrative employee were wounded and were now in stable condition. The Iraqi ministry official said five people were wounded.
Lt. David Russell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the Iraqi army had found four wounded Iranians in a vehicle with an Iraqi driver.
Reports indicate Iraqi security forces "handled the situation appropriately and with a high degree of professionalism," Russell said in an e-mailed statement.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini criticized the United States, saying its harsh rhetoric against Iran fuels attacks on Iranians. U.S. statements "encourage inhuman behavior by occupiers and terrorist groups active in Iraq," he said.
"Responsibility for providing security to diplomats as well as diplomatic and international bodies in Iraq rests with the occupiers. The suspicious behavior of U.S. forces in security issues has brought increasing insecurity in Iraq," he said in a statement. Hosseini said Iran will pursue the case with the Iraqi government.
The U.S. military said in a statement that the Americans were "in no way involved in this attack" and that it "condemns any attack on guests or visitors of any country."
Background to the bad blood
The United States accuses Iran of financing and arming so-called "Special Groups," Shiite militant cells involved in attacks on American troops.
The U.S.-Iranian dispute over the militants has pulled in al-Maliki's government, whose Shiite members have strong ties to Iran. In March, al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Shiite militants in Basra; the operation flared into several weeks of fighting across southern Iraq and in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.
When an Iraqi delegation visited Iran to seek its support in the crackdown, they were scolded by Iranian officials, according to several Iraqi officials in the delegation. The Iranians accused the Iraqis of being tools of Washington and allowing U.S. troops to set up a permanent presence on Iran's doorstep.
Al-Maliki has followed the crackdowns against Shiite militiamen in Basra and Sadr City with a sweep launched Thursday in the northern city of Mosul aimed at rooting out Sunni al-Qaida in Iraq militants.
On Friday, al-Maliki offered amnesty and cash to fighters in Mosul who surrender their weapons. He said he would give 10 days for armed groups to hand over medium and heavy weapons for monetary compensation, as well as amnesty for those "duped" into taking up arms against the government — so long as they did not "have blood on their hands."
Al-Maliki had made a similar offer to Shiite militias in Basra, but few surrendered weapons.
Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, has been the most prominent urban stronghold of the terror network in recent months after its grip was broken in cities of the western province on Anbar.
Like the Shiite militiamen in Basra, al-Qaida's Sunni militants are believed to have infiltrated many levels of life in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city with some 2 million people. Al-Maliki warned on Thursday that many city employees were paying protection money to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The director of the provincial governor's office, police Capt. Ahmed Abdullah, was arrested Thursday, said Duraid Kashmola, the governor of Ninevah province, where Mosul is the capital. He would not say whether the arrest was part of the sweep or whether Abdullah was suspected of al-Qaida ties.
Sweeps in Mosul
In Mosul on Friday, police and army checkpoints were deployed at major roads as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces conducted house-to-house searches and raids for suspects. There have been no clashes since the operation officially began on Thursday, or in the days of raids proceeding it.
Iraqi troops were also chasing suspected al-Qaida fighters who fled the northern city to areas on the outskirts ahead of the sweep. In past major crackdowns, many al-Qaida in Iraq members have managed to scatter after public warnings that an assault was imminent.
Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar, the provincial police spokesman, said more than 800 people have been arrested in and around Mosul over the past five days. He said it was unknown how many al-Qaida figures remain.