The strange saga of an Iranian diplomat abducted in Baghdad took another turn Wednesday with the revelation that Iraqi security officers possibly acting on orders from a rogue government department had abducted him.
The diplomat, assigned to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, was taken at gunpoint on Sunday by kidnappers wearing Iraqi security uniforms.
Iran's accusation that the United States was to blame has threatened to raise tension between the two countries even further.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the Iraqi government was holding four Iraqi military officers in connection with the kidnapping. He told NBC News in an interview that they were investigating whether the men acted on their own or were acting on orders from government officials.
"The government is determined to punish those responsible if they were part of any government entity," Zebari said." I don't want to jump to any conclusions but the type of the operations, the people who were arrested by the security forces, give us some doubts. There may be entities acting on their own."
Incident 'not helpful' for diplomatic relations
Zebari said the involvement of Iraqi military men in the kidnapping was particularly unfortunate since Iraq has been trying to convince other countries to send their diplomats here.
"It is a very embarrassing incident," he said. "On the one hand we are trying to establish a diplomatic presence here in Iraq by our neighbors, by other countries. These incidents are not helpful."
Jalal Sharafi, the Iranian embassy's second secretary, was abducted by gunmen wearing Iraqi uniforms and holding Ministry of Defense ID, Iraqi and Iranian officials said. Iraqi officials said the men may have been fired from the ministry but still retained the credentials.
Zebari said he believed the diplomat was alive. He said U.S. officials he had met with had assured him that the United States was not involved in the abduction. The Iraqi government has previously protested the arrests of several Iranians with diplomatic credentials by U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
U.S.- Iranian tension
The United States has accused Iran of involvement in attacks on U.S. forces here. Asked whether he believed that was the case, Zebari told NBC he would not rule it out.
"Really I have no hard evidence, but I wouldn't discount it at the same time," he said. He said he had raised the issue numerous times with Iranian officials, including as recently as Tuesday, stressing they could not engage in attacks on American forces on Iraqi soil.
Zebari said he was hoping to widen a planned conference in Baghdad of neighboring countries to include the United States and European countries. If the U.S. participated it would be sitting down with Iran, with which it has no diplomatic relations.