Source AP ©

Iraqi government seeking release of 5 Iranians from U.S. military custody

A senior Iraqi foreign ministry official said on Tuesday that the government was "intensively" seeking release of five Iranians detained by the U.S. military more than two months ago in northern Iraq.

"We are intensively seeking the release of the five Iranians," the senior official said.

"This will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines" held by Iran since March 25.

The official also said that the Iraqi government had exerted pressure on those holding an Iranian diplomat, who was released Monday and returned to Tehran on Tuesday. The official would not say who had held the diplomat.

The U.S. military has said the five Iranians, who were arrested Jan. 11 in the northern city of Irbil, were part of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard force that provides funds, weapons and training to Shiite militias in Iraq.

Two days after the raid, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront Tehran.

Iran had insisted that the five detained Iranians were engaged exclusively in consular work.

The Iranian diplomat who was released on Monday was kidnapped in mysterious circumstances two months ago.

Iranian authorities reported the release of Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, and said he would return to Tehran later Tuesday.

An official at the Iranian embassy confirmed Sharafi's release, but said he did not know who was responsible for freeing him.

"He was kidnapped and I don't have further details," said the official, who added Sharafi had already left the country.

"He was released yesterday (Monday)," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for not being authorized to speak to the media.

Sharafi was seized on Feb. 4 when his car was intercepted by vehicles carrying armed men in the Karradah district of Baghdad. The gunmen, who wore Iraqi uniforms, forced him into one of their vehicles and sped away.

Iran said he had been taken by an Iraqi military unit commanded by the U.S. forces, and said it was holding the Americans responsible for his safety.

The U.S. authorities denied any role in his disappearance.

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