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US troops in Iraq held at least two Iranians

WASHINGTON -- US troops in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity in an exercise the White House says may support its charge that Iran is helping fuel the insurgency there.

Two of those detained were visiting as guests of President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, his spokesman said.

The White House confirmed the detentions.

"We suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities," White House spokesman Alex Conant said yesterday. "We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger picture after we finish our investigation."

He said that a routine raid on suspected insurgents netted the Iranians. Two had diplomatic immunity and were released to the Iraqi government , which then released them to Iran, Conant said.

"We continue to work with the [Iraqi government] on the status of the remaining detainees," Conant said. "That investigation is going well."

The incident comes at a delicate diplomatic time. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is trying to expand Iran's role in Iraq as a counter to US influence in the Gulf region. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has resisted pressure for a diplomatic push that would involve all of Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria.

The New York Times reported yesterday that US forces were holding four Iranians, including some seized at the compound of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest Shi'ite bloc in Iraq's Parliament, who met with President Bush earlier this month at the White House. The Times said US forces also stopped an Iranian Embassy car last week and detained two Iranian diplomats, their Iranian guards, and an Iraqi driver. The diplomats were later released by Iraq, it said.

"Two Iranians who are in Iraq at the invitation of the president have been apprehended by the Americans," said Hiwa Osman, Talabani's media adviser.

"The president is unhappy about it."

Osman had no further details. At the White House, Conant declined to characterize the Iranians' activities until the investigation is concluded.

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