Truth, or imagination in the shadowy world of Iraq: in the murky world of spy fiction, the antagonists and protagonists play out physical and mental chess games, their moves and countermoves enthralling the reader. But is truth stranger than fiction, reality more convoluted than make-believe? That could certainly apply to recent events between Britain and the United States on the one hand and Iran and the Iraqi government on the other.

Author:Vesely, Milan

WORLD-RENOWNED AUTHORS SUCH as John le Carre exploit their war time experiences in novels that captivate millions. But even their fertile imaginations could not imagine a plot such as now appears to be playing out in the Gulf. The curtain lifted on the capture of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence operatives in Irbil, Iraq, the mysterious disappearance of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general in Turkey, the kidnapping of the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy on a Baghdad market street and the capture of the British sailors and marines all seemingly linked. Throw in an American businessman disappearing on the Iranian island of Kish and you have the makings of at least one bestseller, if not of three nail-biting spy movies.

The beginnings of this intriguing situation came back in January 2007 when US military personnel raided an alleged Iranian consular office in the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq. Claiming that the five seized Iranians were members of the Quds Brigade of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the US military insisted that the men were military instructors with no diplomatic immunity, this despite an Iraqi government announcement that they were there at the invitation of President Talibani, himself a Kurd. Computers, false travel papers and even secret communications codes were reportedly seized, the US military refusing the Iranian government's request for access to the detained men, President Talibani's own plea for their release given short shrift.

The next move in this intelligence six step happened when Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad was snatched off the street outside the Iranian owned Bank Melli in the central Karrada district by masked men in Iraqi 36th Commando Battalion uniforms on 6 February; this notorious unit is known to be under the direct control of the US military command.

"We've checked and it was not a multinational forces unit that participated in that event," US military spokesman Lt. Col Christopher Garver confirmed the next day despite Iran's insistence that "the Islamic Republic of Iran holds the American forces in Iraq responsible for the life and wellbeing of the Iranian diplomat".

This kidnapping was immediately followed by reports that former Iranian deputy defence minister, Ali Reza Asgari, had disappeared on 7 February while on a trip to Istanbul. As the former IRGC general in charge of liaison with the Lebanese Hizbullah movement...

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