(AP) - Five Iranians detained by U.S.-led forces were working in a decade-old government liaison office that was in the process of being upgraded to a consulate, the Iraqi foreign minister said.
But Deputy U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington that the U.S.-led forces entered the building because information linked it to Iranian elements engaging in violent activities in Iraq.
Tehran condemned the raid in the Kurdish-controlled northern city of Irbil and urged Iraq to push for the Iranians' release, reports Trend.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the building where the Iranians were detained Thursday had operated with Iraqi government approval for 10 years.
"We are now in the process of changing these offices to consulates," he said. "It is not a new office. This liaison office has been there for a long time."
He also echoed concerns the U.S. and Iran were dragging Iraq into their fight.
"We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores with other countries," Zebari, a Kurd, told CNN.
The diplomatic tussle came at an unwelcome time for the United States as President Bush faces criticism over his new strategy for ending the violence in Iraq. Bush also vowed to isolate Iran and Syria, which the U.S. has accused of fueling attacks in Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani plans a trip to Syria on Sunday, the highest-level Iraqi visit to the country in more than 24 years. The neighbors restored diplomatic relations in December that were cut in 1982 amid ideological disputes between Damascus and the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office, meanwhile, rejected Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq as part of an effort to curb sectarian attacks.
"We reject Bush's new strategy and we think it will fail," said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, a senior official in al-Sadr's office. He said Iraq's problems were due to the presence of U.S. troops and called for their withdrawal.
Local leaders of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence, said they were bracing for an attack and avoiding appearing in public with their weapons.
Zebari's Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, called on the Iraqi government to secure the release of the five Iranians, Iranian state television reported. "Such illegal and adventurous acts by the U.S. should be stopped," the broadcast quoted Mottaki as saying.
Mottaki condemned the raid, saying it contravened the Vienna Convention. "This behavior by the United States contradicts its claims of providing security in Iraq," he was quoted as saying.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin also harshly criticized the detentions, calling them a "flagrant violation" of international conventions.
"It's absolutely unacceptable when the military storms a foreign consular office on the territory of another state," Kamynin said. "The unlawful actions by the U.S. servicemen mark an open abuse of a mandate issued to the multinational forces in Iraq."
The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations says consular premises are "inviolable," but it was not clear how that would apply as the building was not a consulate.
Casey said there was no truth to reports that Iran was carrying out legitimate diplomatic activity at the site.
"It did not have the standing of a consulate nor did it have any other international diplomatic standing to speak of," Casey said.
He said the Iranian elements included Revolutionary Guards, a key part of armed support for Iran's Islamic government since it took power in 1979.'
Zebari also said U.S. forces tried to seize more people at the airport in Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad, prompting a confrontation with Kurdish troops.
A Pentagon official in Washington said that after troops detained the Iranians, they learned another person might have escaped and fled to the airport. An American team went to the airport, where they "surprised" Kurdish forces, who apparently had not been informed they were coming, said the Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the incident.
Meanwhile, sectarian violence persisted. Suspected Shiite militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque in a religiously mixed neighborhood of Baghdad, prompting clashes that wounded two guards, police said.
Attackers later blew up a Shiite mosque that was under construction in the northern city of Kirkuk, police Col. Anwar Hassan said. No casualties were reported.
At least 19 people were reported killed or dead nationwide, including 10 bullet-riddled bodies found in Baghdad and an Iraqi journalist who was killed in a drive-by shooting in the northern city of Mosul.
Khudr Younis al-Obaidi was the second journalist killed this year. Associated Press staffer Ahmed Hadi Naji was found shot in the back last week.