Iraq, Iran square off over oil well

Baghdad deploys troops, demands occupiers leave

Admiral Mike Mullen talked to Iraqi Brigadier General Nabeel Darwish Mohammad yesterday while on tour in the region. Admiral Mike Mullen talked to Iraqi Brigadier General Nabeel Darwish Mohammad yesterday while on tour in the region. (Joe Barrentine/ The News Tribune via Associated Press)
By Lara Jakes
Associated Press / December 20, 2009

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BAGHDAD - Iraq deployed troops yesterday to monitor an oil well seized by Iranian forces along the disputed border between the two countries, an Iraqi official said, as Baghdad demanded once again that Iran withdraw.

The diplomatic standoff began late Thursday, when Iranian forces reportedly crossed into Iraq and seized the well, which sits just over the border in the southern Maysan province. It was a dramatic display of the occasionally tense relations between the wary neighbors.

Iraqi troops and border guards were in the area at a staging ground about a half mile from oil well No. 4 at the al-Fakkah oil field and were awaiting further orders, said an Interior Ministry official at the site who was not authorized to talk to reporters. It was unclear how many troops were involved. Iraqi forces barred journalists from approaching the area.

The field is about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.

The takeover - which included the planting of an Iranian flag on the well - was met by protests from Baghdad and an emergency meeting of Iraq’s national security council that denounced it as a gross violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Iraqi officials said the well was clearly in Iraqi territory and demanded the Iranians leave immediately. High-level diplomatic talks between Iraq and Iran are continuing, said Iraqi deputy foreign minister Labid Abbawi.

“The situation this morning is the same: The Iranians have not withdrawn from the well,’’ Abbawi said. “We are still sticking to our position in demanding an immediate withdrawal of Iranian forces from the oil well.’’

It was not clear whether the Iranian forces who reportedly seized the well late Thursday night were still there, and Iran gave conflicting signals yesterday about the incident.

The Iranian military, in a statement carried by the Arabic language Iranian news station al-Alam, denied they had violated Iraq’s sovereignty and said the oil well was part of Iranian territory under a 1975 border agreement.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Rahmin Mehmanparast accused foreign media of spreading false news to “disrupt good relations’’ between Tehran and Baghdad.

“Diplomatic and technical mechanisms’’ were the way to deal with the issue, said Hasan Kazemi Qomi, the ambassador to Iraq, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Iraq, said the incident does speak to the overall view in the country that the Iraqis are not going to be “pushed around by Iran.’’

Army General Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, told reporters that the Iranian forces had withdrawn from the oil well as of yesterday morning. But an oil worker at the field said five Iranians remained at the well and the Iranian flag still flew above it.

The worker, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said Iranian troops were watching the well from a hillside on Iran’s side of the border.

It was not clear as well what kind of Iranian forces had been at the well. An Iraqi official and a witness described them as soldiers, while the Iraqi government spokesman earlier described them only as armed men.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the top American military official, said the United States considers the oil site Iraqi sovereign territory. However, Mullen said the incident must be resolved by the Iraqi government, and there were no plans by the United States to intervene.

Once bitter enemies, Iraq and Iran settled into a more positive, if still uneasy, relationship after a Shi’ite-led government came to power after the 2003 US-led invasion.

But Odierno said Iran continues to fund and train fighters in Iraq, as well as send weapons and equipment over the border.