The head of the U.S. interest section in Baghdad urged Iraq on Sunday to free two Americans convicted of illegally entering the country and insisted on his right to visit them in prison in the meantime.
The men are "absolutely innocent," Polish diplomat Ryszard Krystosik asserted in an interview. Poland represents the United States in dealings with the Iraqi government.
Krystosik said his office "will spare no effort to have their release. We request their release to be immediate."
Iraq was silent Sunday on the eight-year prison sentences imposed Saturday on the two men, but Iraqi media carried a barrage of criticism of the United States.
One Iraqi newspaper blasted what it called American "cowboy" foreign policy, and the deputy prime minister rejected a U.S.-backed proposal to permit Iraq to sell more oil to generate revenues to feed its people.
U.S. officials fear that Iraq may view the Americans as bargaining chips in its campaign to end crippling U.N. economic sanctions.
The United States insists that the issues are separate.
"We've made very clear that there's no justification for the sentences that were imposed on these two: These were innocent mistakes that were involved here," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
Panetta refused to discuss any conditions that Iraq might attach to the two men's freedom.
"We have made a very firm request that they be released immediately on humanitarian grounds, and we are pursuing a variety of diplomatic channels to ensure that they are released quickly," he said.
David Daliberti, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., and William Barloon, 39, of New Hampton, Iowa, were detained by Iraqi police March 13 after crossing the border from Kuwait. Western officials say the men, employees of defense contractors in Kuwait, were trying to visit a friend in the U.N. force that monitors the frontier.
Before Saturday's court decision, Iraqi officials had linked the Americans' detention to the severe hardships facing Iraq's 18 million people because of the U.N. sanctions, which bar Baghdad from selling oil.
The United States and Britain have blocked efforts to lift the sanctions, insisting that Iraq must first comply fully with all U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz on Sunday rejected a new U.S.-backed proposal that would allow Iraq to sell $4 billion worth of oil annually. Iraq would be permitted to spend half the money on food and medicine, but 30% would be earmarked for war reparations to Kuwait and 20% for U.N. humanitarian work with Iraqi Kurds.