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5 Iranian officials released by US return to Iran


TEHRAN, Iran, July 12: Five Iranian officials held in Iraq for more than two years by U.S. forces returned home Sunday after the U.S. released them under pressure from the Iraqi government.

American officials said a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement required that they hand the men over, but said they fear the Iranians — held on suspicion of aiding Shiite militants — pose a threat to U.S. troops in Iraq.

The five men were handed over to Iraqi officials Thursday and flew Sunday to Tehran where they were met at the airport by a cheering crowd of onlookers who carried the men on their shoulders and put garlands of flowers around their necks.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in a news conference with the men welcomed them back and praised what he described as their courageous resistance while being held in Iraq by U.S. forces.

The Iranians were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January 2007. At the time, U.S. authorities said the men included the operations chief and other members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants.

Iran denied the claim, and has described the men as diplomats who were kidnapped by U.S. forces. Mottaki accused President Barack Obama of continuing the bullying practices of his predecessor.

"Iran preserves its right for legal action against the bullying act of the Bush administration in detaining Iranian diplomats, which was unfortunately continued in the new administration," Mottaki was quoted as saying by Iranian television.

The U.S. has long charged that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq and has been financing and assisting Shiite militias in attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier that the transfer could help improve dialogue between the U.S. and Iran after a decades-long adversarial relationship.

Under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact that went into effect in January, the U.S. must hand over Iraqi and foreign detainees in its custody.

Iran and Iraq have enjoyed better relations after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, who launched an eight-year war against Iran in the early 1980s.

Many current Iraqi leaders were in exile in Iran and still have close ties with Tehran.

The release of the five has been portrayed in Iran as a victory for the Islamic Republic at a time when the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under domestic and international criticism following the disputed June 12 presidential election and the ensuing government crackdown on protests.

The opposition claims the election, in which Ahmadinejad was declared the overwhelming winner, was fraudulent and has staged protest rallies calling for a new vote.

Iran has accused foreign powers — the United States and Britain, in particular — of fomenting the unrest.

On Sunday, one of Iran's vice presidents warned Western powers against meddling in the country, calling it a "lose-lose" situation.

Parviz Davoudi said such interference would backfire and destabilize the West, too, as Iran has influence in many parts of the world.

"If you plan to fight Iran and destabilize it, you have to know that insatiability in Iran would lead to flux in the entire region and world," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.

Addressing the opposition, whose street protests have largely been quelled by security forces, Davoudi said they should not pin their hopes on the West, saying, "The system which you want to rely on faces a dead end and defeat."

Iran and the U.S. have had no diplomatic relations since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran and took Americans there hostage for 444 days.

However, Tehran and Washington held three rounds of ambassador-level talks on security in Iraq in 2007.

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