The U.S. military has reluctantly handed over to Iraqi authorities five Iranians it accuses of instigating violence against coalition troops.
"We've turned them over at the request of the Iraqi government," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, citing U.S. obligations to do so under a troop agreement reached late in the Bush administration. Kelly expressed concern that the individuals, which he said were "associated with" Iran's elite Quds Force, could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq.
Despite what U.S. officials say were "high level" protests through the U.S. embassy and military in Baghdad, Iraq turned them over to Iran, which then released them.
"We have of course made our concerns known to the Iraqi government," Kelly said.
U.S. officials said the Iranians' release was not part of any deal or prisoner exchange. Kelly denied speculation that the move was part of the Obama administration's outreach to the Iranian government or a quid pro quo for Iran's recent release of American journalist Roxana Saberi.
The five were arrested in a raid in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in 2007 and had been held at the Camp Cropper detention facility near the Baghdad Airport. The U.S. says it has evidence the Iranians were tied to Iran's elite Quds Force and were working to train militants and smuggle arms, including particularly deadly armor piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), to anti-U.S. elements in the country.
When U.S. troops arrested the five Iranians, U.S. officials tell ABC News they found a laptop, maps and other documents detailing the smuggling of weapons from Iran to Iraq. The evidence, the U.S. says, also linked them to the Quds Force, an arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran has maintained that the five individuals are diplomats. They did hold diplomatic credentials and the building where they were detained was accredited as an Iranian consular office. During their detention, U.S. officials say they were afforded consular visits by Iranian authorities and access by the International Committee of the Red Cross.