U.S. releases 5 Iranians held for 2 years in Iraq

/ Source: The Associated Press

Five Iranian officials who were held in Iraq for more than two years by U.S. forces on suspicion of aiding local Shiite militants returned to Iran Sunday, where the Iranian foreign minister hailed their return as a victory for Iran.

The five diplomats flew to Tehran from Iraq on Sunday and were met at the airport by a cheering crowd of onlookers who carried the men on their shoulders and put garlands of flowers around their necks.

Iran's Foreign Minster Manouchehr Mottaki in a news conference with the men that was carried by Iran's Press-TV minutes after their return welcomed the men back to Iran and praised what he described as their courageous resistance while being held in Iraq by U.S. forces.

The Iranians were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January 2007. At the time U.S. authorities said the men included the operations chief and other members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran denied the claim.

U.S. officials said they handed them over to the Iraqi government at its request because they were obliged to do so under a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.

The U.S. State Department has said it was concerned their release could present a security threat to American troops in Iraq. The U.S. has long charged that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq and has been financing and assisting Shiite militias in attacks against U.S. and Iraq forces.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier that the transfer, part of a U.S.-Iraq security pact to hand over Iraqi and foreign detainees, would help improve dialogue between the U.S. and Iran after a decades-long adversarial relationship.

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