U.S. to Continue Holding Iranian Agents

((((( LatWp LatWp)- 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 further irritate 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, which exerts great influence in Iraq, the meeting could have only a marginal impact, according to Iraqi officials and Middle East experts.

When the Iraqi government did not obtain release of the five detainees, Iran refused to allow a plane carrying Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki to fly over Iran en route to Japan last week. Iran has also been pressing the detainees' case at the United Nations.

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.

The January raid on Iran's liaison office in Irbil was the second by U.S. troops. In December, U.S. troops in Baghdad nabbed Brig. Gen. Mohsen Chirazi , the No. 3 official in the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, and Col. Abu Amad Davari . They were soon released under Iraqi government pressure.

In January, the United States again targeted two high-ranking Iranians, including Gen. Minojahar Frouzanda , the Revolutionary Guard intelligence chief, and Mohammed Jafari , deputy head of Iran's National Security Council, U.S. officials say. They eluded capture.

The United States is invoking Iraqi law as well as U.N. Security Council resolutions 1546, 1637 and 1723 authorizing the U.S.-led coalition operating in Iraq as grounds to detain the Iranians. The U.N. resolutions allow the multinational force to take steps to protect itself .

The Irbil five are members of the elite Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps charged with Iran's clandestine foreign operations. The Quds Force has ties to the Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups as well as to Iraqi political movements that the United States has supported.

The administration's decision comes at an awkward time. Washington is about to send a fourth message to Iran asking for information on the whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson, who has been missing since he flew to Iran's Kish Island five weeks ago. The Financial Times and Reuters reported Friday that Levinson may have met on Kish Island with Daoud Salahuddin , a convert to Islam once known as David Belfield who is still wanted by the FBI for the 1980 murder in Bethesda of Iranian dissident Ali Tabatabai .

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