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US frees 9 Iranians in Iraq in possible outreach to Tehran
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    BAGHDAD — In a possible break in the U.S.-Iranian standoff in Iraq, the U.S. military on Friday released nine Iranians no longer deemed a threat, including two accused of membership in an elite force suspected of arming Shiite militias.
    The handover — planned for several days — still leaves at least three high-profile Iranians in U.S. custody and doesn’t significantly ease the many disputes between Washington and Tehran in Iraq. But it could open the door for another round of groundbreaking talks between the two nations, which have been without diplomatic relations for 28 years.
    It also is seen as a possible gesture for Iran’s pledge to block suspected cross-border weapons shipments to armed Shiite factions, whose attacks have been sharply reduced.
    American soldiers delivered the nine men to the offices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where they were met by Iran’s ambassador, according to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. The former captives arrived in Tehran later Friday, Iranian state TV said.
    The group included two men — identified by the military as Brujerd Chegini and Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh — who were among five captured when U.S. forces stormed an Iranian government office in the northern city of Irbil in January.
    At the time, U.S. officials accused them of being members of Iran’s Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Washington says the organization had been funding, training and arming Iraqi Shiite extremists to fight American forces. Iran said the five were diplomats preparing the Irbil site as a consular office.
    The building, along with another Iranian office in Sulaimaniyah, was shut after the Jan. 11 raid. Both offices — in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish zone — reopened Tuesday as Iranian consulates.
    A U.S. military statement issued Friday said the nine 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.
    In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said he hoped the remaining three Iranians arrested in Irbil would also be freed, calling their capture an ‘‘abduction.’’ The U.S. military continues to hold 11 Iranians, including the three others from the Irbil raid, said Maj. Brad Leighton, an American military spokesman in Baghdad.
    ‘‘From the beginning ... we said they were innocent. Now the U.S. military has confirmed it,’’ Mohammad Ali Hosseini told state radio, speaking of the nine released Friday.
    He also said Tehran was open to more discussions with U.S. and Iraqi diplomats — overseen by Iraqi envoys.
    ‘‘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.’’
    In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the ‘‘commanders on the ground’’ made the decision to free the Iranians after a review by U.S. and Iraqi authorities. McCormack, however, did not comment on the prospects for further talks with Iran.
    There have been two sessions this year in some of the most direct negotiations between Iran and United States since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
    U.S. diplomats say the talks have focused on Iraqi affairs and none of the other sensitive confrontations, including Tehran’s nuclear program. Washington says the program is designed to produce a nuclear weapon, but Iran says it is peaceful energy generation only.
    The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has close ties to Iran, and al-Maliki has sought to bring the two sides together in hopes of curbing violence.
    ‘‘We hope this release can help start a serious dialogue between Iran and the United States, in a way that will serve the interests of Iraq and everybody else,’’ al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press.
    It came a day after U.S. authorities freed 500 Iraqi prisoners, partly as a goodwill gesture and partly to relieve pressure on American-run jails now filled with detainees.
    But Friday’s action was likely aimed more at Tehran.
    In recent weeks, U.S. officials have expressed some cautious optimism that the Islamic state may be willing to stop the alleged flow of weapons to Iraqi militants.
    Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Iran had made such assurances to the Iraqi government. And on Tuesday, a U.S. military spokesman said Iran appears to have kept its promise.
    Among the weapons Washington has accused Iran of supplying are EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles, which fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating even the most heavily armored vehicles. EFPs have been responsible for hundreds of U.S. deaths in Iraq.
    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 the past three months. At the time, he and Gates both said it was too early to tell whether the trend would hold.
    In Iran, two news agencies quoted the freed prisoners as complaining about their treatment in U.S. custody.
    ‘‘I was not tortured physically, but the Americans regularly disrespected us,’’ Chegini told the semiofficial ISNA news agency. Another agency, Mehr, quoted him as saying he did not have proper air conditioning while in captivity.
    Hamid Reza Asgari Shukuh told Mehr he was kept in solitary confinement, but that after three months his American guards let him have a daily outdoor break. He also said he had seen the three other Iranians captured with him in Irbil, and that they remained in good health.
    Also Friday, the U.S. military said it was investigating a ‘‘hard landing’’ by one of its helicopters during an operation Thursday near Samarra, and whether the incident could have been due to hostile fire or other insurgent activity.
    At least 20 people were killed or found dead across the country Friday, police and morgue officials said.
    Among them was a Sunni tribal leader, Fayez al-Obeidi, who had partnered with U.S. and Iraqi security forces to oust al-Qaida in Iraq from his neighborhood near Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
    An attacker first cut the electricity to al-Obeidi’s house, then pushed his way through guards at the door and triggered a suicide blast inside, police said. The sheik and three of his relatives were killed, according to police and relatives.

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