US army releases detained Iranian diplomats in Iraq

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TEHRAN, Nov 9 (Reuters) US forces released today two Iranians who were detained in January in Iraq on suspicion of providing support to Shi'ite militias, Iranian state television reported.

''The two were handed over to Iranian officials in Baghdad and will return home today afternoon,'' state television quoted an Iranian embassy official in Baghdad as saying.

US spokesperson Rear Admiral Greg Smith said on Tuesday that nine Iranians being held in Iraq would be released soon. He said they included two who were among five Iranians detained by US forces in northern Iraq.

US forces have said the five detained in Arbil were held on suspicion of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Qods force. Iran insists they are diplomats and has demanded their release.

Washington accuses Tehran of training Shi'ite militias in Iraq and supplying them with weapons including roadside bombs.

Iran denies the charge and blames violence in Iraq on the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The detention of five Iranians in Arbil contributed to a significant rise in tensions between Iran and Iraq, as well as between Tehran and Washington.

Today's release took place just days after US officials signalled a possible change in approach by noting positive Iranian developments in Iraq.

Iranian media also said seven Iranian pilgrims detained by US forces in Iraq were released.

''The nine are at the Baghdad Airport. All are safe and sound,'' said the official IRNA news agency, quoting an unnamed official.

Iraqi officials hope the release will encourage more productive talks between Iran, Iraq and the United States on establishing security in Iraq.

Iranian and US officials have held three rounds of talks this year on security in Iraq, ending a diplomatic freeze that started when the US embassy in Tehran was stormed and diplomats held hostage shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Fresh talks with focus on Iraqi security are expected in the next few weeks, Iranian and US officials have said.

REUTERS SZ HS1443

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