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I'll Give You Dozens of Terrorists, You Give Me One Journalist, OK?

It's a bit more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that we are turning loose Iranian terrorists in exchange for the release of Roxana Saberi, plus, probably, three British hostages.  The first payment arrived today in Tehran, to a triumphant reception.  Ugh.

The terrorists in question are officers in the Iranian Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.  They were captured in Irbil, Iraq, in January,  2007, as the "surge" was getting under way.  A few weeks earlier, other Iranians had been  arrested in Baghdad.   For our military leaders, it was an open and shut case.  The Iranian military officers had been involved in several operations in which Americans had been killed, and, even though they claimed "diplomatic status," the evidence against them was thoroughly convincing.  One American official who saw the documentation at the time told me "they are not just enemies;  they're criminals."

Nonetheless, from the very beginning, powerful American officials argued that the Iranian terrorists should be handled on an "arrest and release" basis, because to hold them for any significant length of time would enrage the mullahs.  As the New York Sun wrote editorially:

On one side are the Central Intelligence Agency, which has flubbed nearly every assignment it's had in this war, and the State Department, whose very DNA seems to make it incapable of supporting a hard line. These agencies are arguing that the Iranians will escalate their war against us if the captives are not returned.

On the other side are the Marines, special operations forces, and the Army, all arguing that the risk is too great if these men are at large. This is apparently a decision — like the decision to conduct the raid that led to their arrest — that is going to have to be made by the commander in chief. It should be an easy call for a war president.

It was, in the event, an easy call:  the "Irbil Five" remained in American detention.  Every time somebody in the American government suggested it would be good to release them, the military leaders spat.  Until now.

American officials, eager to pretend that "their hands were tied," will point you to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which in theory gives the Iraqi Government control over everything and everybody in the country, including detainees.  The language is typical legalese, but American military officers recognized that the Agreement would oblige us, on request, to turn over all the prisoners we had captured, from Day One.  For that reason, they fought a heated but ultimately unsuccessful battle against it.  Some of our highest ranking officers begged their civilian commanders to make special provision for the likes of the Irbil Five.  They didn't want them back on the battlefield, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, areas where their lethal expertise would inevitably be used to kill more Americans and our coalition allies.

But the government's excuses only go so far, for like the provisions that give the Iraqis total control of their air space, they are theoretically binding but practically impossible to carry out, at least in the short term.  Iraq does not have the facilities for all of our prisoners, any more than it can patrol and defend its air space, or provide air cover for ground operations.  So it was understood by both sides that Iraqi sovereignty would be extended gradually.  And our men and women on the ground intended to hold the Iranian terrorists--of whom there are more than thirty important agents and officers, and many hundred lower level operatives--as long as they could.