Iranian diplomat seized by gunmen wearing army uniforms in central Baghdad

Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms seized an Iranian diplomat as he drove through central Baghdad, officials said Tuesday.

One Iraqi government official said the diplomat was detained Sunday by a special Iraqi army unit that reports directly to the U.S. military. But a military spokesman denied any U.S. troops or Iraqis that report to them were involved.

"We've checked with our units and it was not an MNF-I (Multi-National Forces Iraq) unit that participated in that event," military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said, adding he could not confirm the diplomat was seized.

An official with the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information, said the diplomat was heading to check on the planned opening of an Iranian bank Sunday in the central Karradah neighborhood when he was seized by men wearing Iraqi army uniforms.

The Iraqi government official said Iraqi soldiers in two vehicles intercepted a car carrying the diplomat at 6 p.m. Sunday in the predominantly Shiite area, then placed him in one of their vehicles that sped away.

Iraqi police, apparently suspecting that a kidnapping was taking place, opened fire on the second vehicle and detained the occupants, according to the official. He added that the men who had been detained were released Monday into the custody of members of the unit, who showed official badges and said they need to transfer the suspects to another police station.

The Iraqi troops were part of an army unit that receives direct orders from the U.S. military, the official said, declining to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.

Two other Iraqi officials said earlier that the diplomat was kidnapped by gunmen in Karradah, which has been hit by several recently bombings, and they expected negotiations to start to secure his release.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

The U.S. Embassy spokesman also said he could not confirm the reports.

"There appear to be conflicting accounts of this alleged incident and we are in the process of trying to determine the facts," the spokesman, Lou Fintor, said.

The incident comes as tensions have been rising between Iran and the United States.

The Shiite-led Iraqi government has shown increasing impatience with both sides for letting the tensions spill over the border after the U.S. detained five Iranians in northern Iraq and accused them of having links to an Iranian military faction blamed for funding and arming Iraqi militants, reports AP.

Two diplomats also were detained in a Dec. 21 roundup of a group of 10 suspects. The diplomats were interrogated and released to Iranian officials eight days later.

The White House also has authorized U.S. troops in Iraq to kill or capture Iranian agents deemed to be a threat, saying evidence was mounting that Iran is supporting terrorists inside Iraq and is a major supplier of bombs and other weapons used to target U.S. forces. Tehran has denied the charges.

The United States and Iran have regarded each other with distrust and suspicion since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militant students. Most recently, tensions have flared over U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran and force it to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.

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