Iraq's Kurds say Iran closes border over detention

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SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, Sept 24 (Reuters) A senior official in Iraq's northern Kurdistan said today that Iran had closed its border with the semi-autonomous region in protest at the detention of Iranians by US forces.

There was no immediate confirmation of the move from Tehran.

''Iran is setting up pressure in a bid to release its citizens detained by American (forces),'' Kurdistan Trade Minister Mohammed Raouf told Reuters.

The US military last week said it had arrested an Iranian man it accused of smuggling roadside bombs into Iraq and training foreign fighters.

American soldiers raided a hotel in Sulaimaniya and arrested the man, who they said was a member of the Qods Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Iranian and Iraqi officials said the man was a member of a trade delegation.

Tensions between bitter rivals Washington and Tehran were already high over the arrest by US forces of five Iranians in the Kurdish city of Arbil earlier this year.

Iran says the five men are diplomats but Washington says they were supporting militants operating in Iraq.

Raouf complained that shutting the border would cost the Kurdistan regional government about a million dollars a day.

''Closing the borders by Iran will create a spike in prices of imported commodities, like kerosene and foodstuffs,'' he said.

He also criticised Iran for closing the border during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, when prices were already higher.

US ACCUSATIONS A spokesman for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) said he hoped the closure was only temporary.

''The KRG will cooperate with the central government in Baghdad to cope with this crisis by importing commodities through other points outside Kurdistan,'' spokesman Jamal Abdulla said.

''It is hard for the KRG to find other alternatives. Iran is the closest to us,'' he said.

The United States accuses Iran of training and equipping Shi'ite militias in Iraq and supplying roadside bombs which are by far the biggest killers of US soldiers in Iraq.

Iran denies the charge and blames Iraq's sectarian violence, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, on the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Washington and Tehran are also at odds over Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for peaceful ends but the West suspects is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

The two sides have held several rounds of talks this year on security in Iraq, ending a diplomatic freeze that had lasted almost three decades.

REUTERS JK RN1757

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