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Iraqi troops in standoff with Iran over oil well

Iraqi troops massed Saturday near an oil well on the border in a standoff with Iranian forces that seized control of the site in a sudden flare up of tension between the two uneasy neighbors.
Workers walk near flames of burning excess gas at Fakka oilfield, near Amara
Gas is vented from the al-Fakkah oil field near Amara, Iraq, on Dec. 8. Iranians at least temporarily seized an oil well at the field, raising border tensions.Atef Hassan / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraqi troops massed Saturday near an oil well on the border in a standoff with Iranian forces that seized control of the site in a sudden flare up of tension between the two uneasy neighbors.

The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq said Baghdad's speedy response to the border incursion showed that Iraq is "not going to be pushed around" by Iran.

The Iraqi troops and border guards were waiting for further orders at a staging ground less than a mile from oil well No. 4 at the al-Fakkah oil field, said an Interior Ministry official at the site who was not authorized to talk to the media.

The Iranian military, meanwhile, denied they had violated Iraq's sovereignty since the oil well was part of Iranian territory according to a 1975 border agreement, in a statement carried by the Arabic language Iranian news station al-Alam.

The field is located about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.

It was not clear, however, whether the Iranian forces who seized the well late Thursday night were still there.

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

Iranian flag planted
The takeover — which included planting 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 that 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"The situation this morning is the same: the Iranians have not withdrawn from the well," Abbawi told The Associated Press. "We are still sticking to our position in demanding an immediate withdrawal of Iranian forces from the oil well."

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.

U.S.: Iranians gone
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters that the Iranian forces had withdrawn from the oil well as of Saturday morning. But an oil worker at the field said five Iranians remain inside 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 an eyewitness described them as soldiers. The Iraqi government spokesman described them only as armed men.

U.S. officials said Iran had overstepped its boundaries.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the top American military official, said the U.S. considers the oil site Iraqi sovereign territory.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the incident does speak to the overall view here that they are not going to be "pushed around by Iran."

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 Shiite-led government came to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"I continue to worry about the influence of Iran," Mullen, in Iraq for a two-day visit with U.S. and Iraqi authorities, said at a news conference in Baghdad. "I still think it's important that Iran have a constructive, positive influence in this region and globally. And there are just too many examples where that is not the case."

Odierno also said Iran continues to fund and train fighters in Iraq, as well as send weapons and equipment over the border — although less frequently now than in the past.

Analysts said it was too early to say whether the incident would mushroom into greater tension but said it could raise concerns with oil companies looking to invest in Iraq.

Oil prices rose slightly after news of the incident.