CIA Tortured Me in Iraq, Claims Freed Iranian Diplomat

Allegations spark fresh speculation of secret deal.

An Iranian diplomat who was freed last week, two months after being seized in Iraq, said yesterday that he had been tortured by the CIA while in captivity at an Iraqi government installation.

The claims by Jalal Sharafi on Iranian state television will lead to fresh speculation that the diplomat was freed as part of a deal to secure Wednesday's release of 15 British servicemen seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The allegations also come amid continuing political fall-out over the two-week hostage crisis in both London and Tehran, with both Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Prime Minister Tony Blair being criticised for their behaviour during the stand-off.

While Sharafi's claims are very similar to those made by the servicemen on their return to Britain, the recent US history of renditions, kidnapping and abuse make them difficult to ignore.

Although US officials denied yesterday any role in Sharafi's abduction, his release has led inevitably to suspicion that it was part of a secret deal that has also seen US forces grant access to five other detained Iranians in Iraq.

Sharafi was kidnapped in February by gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms. When he was released on Tuesday, Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the diplomat was in good health but 'did not know who had held him'.

Sharafi, however, says he was abducted by agents bearing Iraqi Defence Ministry ID cards. He said he was taken to a base near Baghdad airport, where he was questioned in Arabic and English.

'Questions asked by CIA agents were about the presence and influence of Iran in Iraq. They asked questions about the amount of aid Iran provided to the government of [Iraqi Prime Minister] al-Maliki, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups,' he said.

'When they were faced with my answers about the official relationship of Iran with the Iraqi government and officials, they increased the tortures. Many days they tortured me day and night,' he said.

And as Britain and Iran continued to swap accusations, evidence was emerging in Tehran that both conservative and reformist Iranians were increasingly disillusioned with Ahmadinejad, arguing that the televised scenes of the Iranian President personally greeting the bemused Britons moments after announcing their release had brought ridicule on the country's Islamic system.

A fundamentalist MP, Emad Afrough - chairman of the Iranian parliament's powerful cultural committee - denounced the performance as 'inappropriate': 'It is not befitting for any government that the entire cabinet bids farewell to 15 military personnel who had hitherto been recognised as invaders of Iran's territorial waters,' he told The Observer

The criticism was echoed by Saeed Leylaz, a pro-reformist commentator, who said: 'The origin of this show has been the humiliation of the country of Iran. You capture people and then you send them out with suits, shirts, sweets and gifts to take back to Britain. It's embarrassing.'

Ahmadinejad - who has come under pressure over Iran's worsening economy - was thought at first to have wrong-footed his critics with the theatrically staged ceremony last Wednesday.

The political fall-out was not limited to Iran. In London, too, friction has emerged between Downing Street and the Foreign Office amid claims that the tougher line taken by Tony Blair may have delayed the release of woman sailor Faye Turney.

Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, has faced accusations that she was sidelined during the drama, leaving the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald, to make the real breakthrough. However, this weekend friends insisted the Foreign Office's 'softly-softly' approach had paid off.

Whitehall sources disclosed that the parading of Turney had backfired on Iran in the Arab world, costing it the support of Muslim countries who believed it was wrong for a woman to be held captive.

Syria was among influential neighbours that helped pressure Iran into releasing the sailors, while the Turkish Prime Minister also interceded on Britain's behalf.

[Source; By Robert Tait and Gaby Hinsliff, The Guardian UK, 08Apr07]

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