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U.S. won’t free Iranian intelligence agents

WASHINGTON – After intense internal debate, the Bush administration has decided to hold on to five Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents captured in Iraq, overruling a State Department recommendation to release them, according to U.S. officials.

At a meeting of the president’s foreign policy team Tuesday, the administration decided the five Iranians will remain in custody and go through a periodic six-month review used for the 250 other foreign detainees held in Iraq, U.S. officials said. The next review is not expected until July, officials say.

The five, seized in a Jan. 11 raid by U.S. forces in the Kurdish city of Irbil, are at the center of increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran. The decision is certain to aggravate Tehran, which has ratcheted up pressure on the United States and on its allies and even its friends in the Iraqi government to win freedom for the Irbil five.

The decision came as Iraq’s government spokesman, on a White House visit Friday, urged better ties. “We feel that the improvement and the better relations between the United States and Iran could minimize – could make the (Iranian) interference less,” Ali Dabbagh said in a news briefing with White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Differences over the five Iranians reflect an emerging divide on how to deal with Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went into the meeting Tuesday advising that the men be freed because they are no longer useful, but after a review of options she went along with the consensus, U.S. officials say. Vice President Dick Cheney’s office made the firmest case for keeping them. Their capture signals that Iran’s actions are monitored and that Iranian operatives face seizure.

The administration has expressed concern about Tehran’s role in Iraq. Iran has long aided Shiite militias but more recently has also armed some Sunni militias, officials say. Officials also allege that Iran has provided roadside explosives that have killed U.S. troops. But Washington needs Iran’s cooperation to stabilize Iraq.

Since the capture, Iran has threatened not to attend a key meeting in Egypt next month of Iraq’s neighbors – as well as the United States and international groups involved in Iraq – that Washington hopes will foster cooperation on Iraq. Without Iran, the meeting could have only a marginal impact, according to Iraqi officials and Middle East experts.

Some U.S. officials now say the seizure of 15 British sailors last month by the Revolutionary Guard may have been part of an effort to pressure Washington through Britain, its close ally and the second-largest troop contributor in Iraq. One reason Washington does not want to free the Iranians is to avoid the appearance of a deal to win the 15 Britons freedom last week, U.S. officials acknowledged.


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