BAGHDAD – Iranian forces entered southern Iraq before dawn Friday to seize control of an oil well in disputed territory on the border, a provocation that sent Iraqi security chiefs into emergency meetings, Iraqi government officials said.
Senior officials in Baghdad and in southern Iraq said that an unknown number of Iranian troops crossed into Iraq early Friday, where they raised the Iranian flag at an oil well in Iraq’s part of the Fakkah oil field, one of several fields that Iraq and Iran share. There were no reports of violence or shots fired.
Amir Arshadi, a spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, denied that such an incident took place and criticized the news media for “spreading rumors.”
Reports of the incident aggravated long-standing tensions between the countries, which fought a 1980-’88 war that claimed as many as a million lives. Although Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government and Shiite Iran have grown closer since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Iraq’s Sunni Muslim dictator, Saddam Hussein, border issues remain thorny, with sporadic posturing.
Border security is a main concern as the American military prepares to withdraw and hand responsibility to Iraqi forces, which remain ill-equipped to prevent the flow of militants and contraband from neighboring countries.
“Iraq lost its military power in 2003, so the highest responsibility to protect the borders lies with the force that occupied Iraq,” said Abdel Hadi al-Hassani, an Iraqi legislator who serves on the committee that oversees oil and natural resources, referring to the U.S. “We don’t have an air force, we don’t have a navy and we don’t have an infantry that’s capable of protecting the borders.”
The extent of the alleged foray is murky. News agencies quoted some Iraqi officials as saying the Iranians rolled up to well No. 4 in armored vehicles, dug trenches and replaced the Iraqi flag with the Iranian tricolor. Other officials described a much smaller operation, saying it was simply another example of the tug of war over the fields.
Sarhan Sami Younes, the head of the security committee for the Maysan Provincial Council, said border commanders told him that three soldiers crossed the border and stayed for a few minutes.
“We have no explanation for why they came in, what they did and how or why they left,” Younes said.
“We have border forces, but they didn’t interfere. They didn’t do anything,” a member of the governing council of Iraq’s Maysan province, home to the Fakkah field, told McClatchy on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “People are angry, and they’re saying, ‘If Saddam were here, would the Iranians do the same thing?’ I really blame the United States for what’s going on because it just handed Iraq over to Iran.”