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Two Iranians detained in Iraq are freed as moms plea for release of American hikers in Iran

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Washington Post: Two Iranians held for years in Iraq were unexpectedly freed on Friday, Iranian news media reported, just as the mothers of three arrested American hikers in Iran were visiting Tehran and asking for their release.

The Washington Post

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; 8:43 AM

TEHRAN — Two Iranians held for years in Iraq were unexpectedly freed on Friday, Iranian news media reported, just as the mothers of three arrested American hikers in Iran were visiting Tehran and asking for their release.

Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said the two Iranians had gone to neighboring Iraq on Shiite Muslim religious pilgrimages and were arrested by U.S. troops “on baseless charges and for not carrying passports,” Iranian state television reported. He said the two “had been delivered to the Iraqi judiciary system” under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact on an unspecified date and that Iraqi officials handed them over to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad on Friday.

There was no immediate comment from U.S. or Iraqi officials on the case.

Some Iranian analysts interpreted the move as a possible diplomatic gesture toward Iran that could increase the chances for the release of one or more of the detained American hikers. In Iraq, however, it was not immediately clear whether the decision to free the two men had anything to do with the case of the Americans, who were detained last summer after crossing into Iranian territory during what they said was a hiking expedition in the mountains of Iraq’s Kurdistan region bordering Iran.

The three hikers — Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend, Joshua Fattal, 27 — have been held in Tehran’s Evin prison. Iranian authorities have informally accused the trio of spying, an allegation their relatives strongly deny. No formal charges have been filed against the three since their arrest in late July.

On Friday, the mothers of the hikers met with family members of Iranian diplomats who were detained in Iraq in 2007, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported. It said that when those Iranian families were allowed to meet with the detainees at a U.S. base in Iraq, they were met with a “lack of facilities, unsuitable conditions and a security atmosphere.”

U.S. troops captured five Iranians in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in January 2007 and accused them of being agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. They were held for two years before being turned over to Iraqi authorities and released.

Iranian officials said they allowed the American mothers to visit their children for “humanitarian” reasons. The reunion took place in one of Tehran’s top hotels.

On Thursday, the three met with their mothers in an emotional reunion, parts of which were broadcast on Iranian state television.

The two Iranians released on Friday are Ahmed Barazandeh, who was arrested seven years ago in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and Ali Abdolmalek, who was picked up three years ago in Samarra, Kazemi-Qomi told Iranian state media.

He said they had been held in Baghdad under U.S. supervision on the basis of “groundless” accusations. He asserted that they had traveled to Iraq solely for religious pilgrimages and said they would leave for Tehran as soon as possible.

It was not immediately clear what charges, if any, had been leveled against the two by U.S. or Iraqi authorities. U.S. forces have detained a number of Iranians in Iraq over the years. Most have been accused of smuggling weapons into Iraq or of involvement in attacks on U.S. forces by armed Shiite groups.

In his remarks about the freed Iranians, Kazemi-Qomi made no mention of the three American hikers held in Iran.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has used the Americans’ case to call attention to several Iranians imprisoned by the United States, prompting speculation that the Islamic Republic would be interested in an exchange. Iranian authorities strongly deny this.

In December, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it had a list of 11 Iranians held by U.S. authorities in the United States and in third countries.

Among them is a sentenced arms dealer, Amir Hossein Ardebili, 36, who was arrested in the country of Georgia in 2007 following a U.S. undercover sting operation and later extradited to the United States. He pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court last year to arms smuggling charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. Including time already served, he could be released by 2012.

Another Iranian wanted back by Tehran is a nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, who disappeared last year in Saudi Arabia while on pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. U.S. media reports have said he defected.

Some analysts in Tehran believe that the Islamic Republic would free the hikers in return for Ardebili, Amiri or other Iranians held in U.S. captivity.

In May last year, Roxana Saberi, a U.S.-Iranian dual national who was working in Iran as a freelance journalist without a press card, was unexpectedly released after having been sentenced to eight years on spying charges. Some weeks later, three Iranian diplomats held in Iraq by U.S. forces were transferred to Iraqi custody and freed. Officials in both countries said the releases were unrelated.

On Sunday, French national Clotilde Reiss was released 10 months after having been accused of gathering information for her country during the unrest that followed last year’s disputed presidential election in Iran. She was freed days after a French judge ordered the release of Iranian national Majid Kakavand, instead of extraditing him to the United States on charges of attempting to buy military equipment. French and Iranian officials denied any connection between the cases.

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