Iran’s dep. defense minister for eight years up until 2005 – and before that a prominent Revolutionary Guards General, Alireza Asquari, 63, has not been seen since his disappearance in mysterious circumstances in Istanbul on Feb. 7.
The missing general has been identified as the officer in charge of Iranian undercover operations in central Iraq, according to DEBKAfile’s intelligence and Iranian sources. He is believed to have been linked to – or participated in – the armed group which stormed the US-Iraqi command center in Karbala south of Baghdad Jan. 20 and snatched five American officers. They were shot outside the Shiite city.
An Middle East intelligence source told DEBKAfile that the Americans could not let this premeditated outrage go unanswered and had been hunting the Iranian general ever since.
The BAZTAB Web site reported that Feb. 6, two non-Turkish citizens made a reservation for Gen Asquari for three nights at the Istanbul Ceylan Hotel paying cash. He arrived the next day from Damascus and immediately disappeared.
The Turkish foreign ministry said only: “It is a very sensitive intelligence matter and the Interior Ministry is dealing with this issue.ï¿½?
BAZTAB speaks for the faction associated with Mohsein Rezai, former Revolutionary Guards commander, deputy head of Iran’s most powerful governing council and a man very close to top intelligence circles in Tehran
The Iranian general’s arrival at Ataturk international airport on a flight from Damascus is recorded at border control, but he never reached the hotel.
Instead, he booked himself into the more modest and cheaper Hotel Ghilan. He left his luggage in the room, walked out of the hotel – and vanished.
A police official in Istanbul said: “We are trying to find out whether he left or was taken. Clearly the reservation made for him at the luxurious Ceylan Hotel was made to mislead. Tehran’s application to Interpol, which has issued a yellow bulletin, means that the Iranians are not treating Asquari’s disappearance as a defection but as involuntary.
DEBKAfile adds: Tehran sees the hand of US undercover agencies or contract gunmen and believes Washington has stepped up its war against Iranian officers running Tehran’s clandestine operations in Iraq. The kidnapping of an Iranian general outside Iraq would expand President Bush’s permission for the capture or killing of Iranian agents helping Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda murder Americans in Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 288 reported on Feb. 2 that the gunmen who abducted the American soldiers in Karbala – and then shot them dead execution-style – belonged to a special commando team of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, which was sent to Iraq especially for this mission.
The team was made up of intelligence officers who speak American English and were trained to masquerade as US troops, kidnap US soldiers and hold them as hostages for bargaining.
These officers are from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and other Arab countries, who studied in the US and can talk like Americans – even in the idiom of US troops. Teams of these masqueraders roam at large in Iraq, clad in American uniforms, armed with US weapons and driving stolen American vehicles.
Tehran’s plan was to snatch a group of US soldiers and hold them hostage against the release of the 8 Revolutionary Guards paratroops in American custody. However, according to our intelligence sources, the plan went awry for some unknown reason and the Iranian commandos decided to execute their captives before making a fast getaway from the Karbala region.
Tehran views this operation as a fiasco because it did not achieve its goal. At the same time, Iranian intelligence has not been put off its plan to take American soldiers hostage in Iraq. Its chiefs are determined to do whatever it takes to obtain the release of the third top man of the Revolutionary Guards al Quds division, Col. Fars Hassami, who DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports is not the only high-profile Iranian officer in American hands. Another is Mohammad Jaafari Sahra-Rudi, who was the kingpin of Iran’s terrorist operations in large parts of Iraq. His long record includes leading the Iranian death squad which assassinated Iran’s Kurdish Democratic Party leader Dr. Abdol-Rahman Qasemlou in Vienna in 1989.
Austrian security services caught the assassin but sent him back to Iran as part of a secret transaction between the two countries.
Qasemlou operated in Iraq under his real identity and even met with Iraqi president Jalal Talabani just a few days before he was captured in the American raid of the Iranian “liaison officeï¿½? in Irbil Jan 11.
The Iranians have explored every channel they can think of to break the agents out of American custody. When they realized that the United States was adamant about holding on to them, the heads of the Revolutionary Guards decided to go ahead with their campaign of abductions against US troops in Iraq. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approved.