BAGHDAD The U.S. military released nine Iranians from custody in Iraq on Friday, including two accused of being members of an elite force suspected of arming Shiite extremists. It said they were no longer considered security risks.
The nine were released to Iraqi officials, and were being transferred to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement. They were expected to return to Iran later Friday, it said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said it was investigating a "hard landing" by one of its helicopters during a operation a day earlier near Samarra, and whether the incident could have been due to hostile fire or other insurgent activity. Some 16 suspects were killed and 44 captured in raids over the past 48 hours in northern Iraq, the military said.
The nine Iranians released Friday included two men identified by the military for the first time as Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh who were among five people captured when U.S. forces stormed an Iranian government office in the northern city of Irbil in January.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state radio: "From the beginning of the abduction of the five Iranian diplomats, we said they were innocent. Now the U.S. military has confirmed it."
Hosseini said Friday that he hoped the remaining three Iranians detained in Irbil would also be released soon. And he reiterated Tehran's offer for talks with U.S. and Iraqi diplomats.
"Iran is ready to consider a new round of trilateral talks, if Iraqi officials demand them," Hosseini said. "U.S. officials should announce their request for the talks through formal channels."
At the time of their detention, U.S. officials accused them of being members of Iran's elite Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards that Washington has accused of funding and arming Shiite extremists fighting American forces in Iraq. Iran said the five were diplomats working in a facility that was undergoing preparations to be a consular office.
The building, along with another Iranian office in Sulaimaniyah, was shut after the Jan. 11 raid. Both offices located in the two largest cities of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish zone reopened Tuesday as Iranian consulates.
Iraqi Kurds, like the country's Shiite Arabs, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with America.
The U.S. statement said the Iranians were released after a "careful review of individual records to determine if they posed a security threat to Iraq, and if their detention was of continued intelligence value."
"All nine individuals were determined to no longer pose a security risk," it said.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multi-National Force-Iraq's communications division, had announced earlier this week that the men would be freed "in the coming days."
Friday's release came a day after U.S. authorities freed about 500 Iraqi prisoners in an ongoing push to empty American jails of detainees no longer deemed a threat.
But the military says it's still holding 25,800 Iraqis waiting to face charges or be given freedom. About 17,000 of those were captured this year, in largely successful campaigns to secure Baghdad and its surrounding belts, the military said.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has close ties to neighboring Iran, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to bring the antagonists Washington and Tehran together in hopes that would reduce violence.
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Iran had made assurances to the Iraqi government that it would stop the flow into Iraq of bomb-making materials and other weaponry that Washington says has inflamed insurgent and militia violence and killed hundreds of U.S. forces.
And on Tuesday, Smith told reporters in Baghdad that Iran appeared to have kept its promise.
"It's our best judgment that these particular EFPs ... in recent large cache finds do not appear to have arrived here in Iraq after those pledges were made," Smith said, displaying an array of bombs and rockets that he said were recently found. The military claimed most of the weapons were Iranian-made.
Among the weapons Washington has accused Iran of supplying to Iraqi insurgents are EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles. They fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating even the most heavily armored military vehicles, and thus are more deadly than other roadside bombs.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said last week that there had been a sharp decline in the number of EFPs found in Iraq in the last three months. At the time, he and Gates both said it was too early to tell whether the trend would hold, and whether it could be attributed to action by Iranian authorities.
The U.S. military statement issued Friday identified the other seven Iranians as follows:
Hussain al-Kobadi, captured Nov. 20, 2004 in Fallujah, where he had been allegedly attempting to flee the scene of a mortar attack.
Ibrahim Mahmud Ahmed, captured April 8, 2005 during a raid in Ramadi.
Adil Wusayn Shamarad Muhammad and Azzam Hasan Karam Abd, both captured Feb. 20, 2006 "during a raid to disrupt al-Qaida operations in Iraq," the military said. The statement did not specify where Muhammad and Abd were captured.
Mohammad Ali Abbas al-Buzuda, detained May 6, 2007 by Iraqi police in al-Qadisiyah, for illegal entry into Iraq from Iran.
Jafan Allah, taken into custody on July 26, 2007 after he turned himself in to authorities at a border checkpoint.
Habib Muhammad Ghuribani Kurdi, captured Aug. 1, 2007 "during an intelligence-driven raid aimed at capturing a senior insurgent," the military said.