BAGHDAD - 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 yesterday.
Tehran condemned the raid in the Kurdish-controlled northern city of Irbil and urged Iraq to push for the Iranians' release.
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 United States has accused of fueling attacks in Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani plans a trip to Syria tomorrow, the highest-level Iraqi visit to the country in more than 24 years. In December, the neighbors restored diplomatic relations 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 Sadr's office. He said Iraq's problems were due to the presence of U.S. troops and called for their withdrawal.
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.
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.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the detained Iranians were not carrying diplomatic passports and the building "was not a consulate. This was not an officially accredited diplomatic facility."
Pressed to describe the office, McCormack said it was a "building that the Iranians were using, occupying, that was Iraqi territory."
Meanwhile, 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.