- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

UPDATED:

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iranian troops have crossed into Iraqi territory and seized an oil well that lies in a disputed area along the two countries’ southern border, Iraq’s deputy foreign Minster said Friday.

The deputy minister, Mohammed Haj Mahmoud, said Iranian troops seized oil well No. 4 Thursday night in the al-Fakkah oil field, located about 200 miles (about 320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. The oil field is one of Iraq’s largest.

Oil prices rose slightly after news of the incident.

“We are coordinating with the Oil Ministry regarding this issue. This is not the first time that the Iranians have tried to prevent Iraqis from investing in oil fields in border areas. Tomorrow, we might summon the Iranian ambassador to discuss this issue,” Mahmoud told The Associated Press.

The al-Fakkah field is considered a shared field between Iran and Iraq, meaning both nations are able to pump oil from it, but the Iraqis consider oil well No. 4 theirs.

In Washington, a U.S. official said that although Iranians have crossed the border before, they had not previously ventured this far.

Iraqi security forces were in the area, but there are no reports of any fighting or that any shots were fired, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

No U.S. troops were in the area. And the Iranians are believed to have left the area, he said.

Such incidents have happened before along the Iran-Iraq border, which was never clearly delineated after the brutal war between the two countries in the 1980s.

Last year, the Iraqi Oil Ministry accused Iran of stealing oil from the al-Fakkah field and of illegally seizing and capping off wells in a second field that Iraq claims lies entirely within its territory.

The two adjacent oil fields — Abu Gharb, which Iraq claims in its entirety, and al-Fakkah, the shared field — both lie in Maysan province.

The deputy foreign minister said he did not know whether the Iranians were still in control of the oil well. The U.S. military said it did not have any information on the incident.

A message left for Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman seeking comment was not returned Friday evening.

According to Iraq’s state-run Iraqiya television, the National Security Council, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was meeting Friday night to discuss the issue.

Iraq has an estimated 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves — the world’s third largest, behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But years of neglect, war and insurgency have left the oil fields performing far below what they’re capable of. Iraq has been trying to attract international investment to develop its oil industry, including a round of international bidding last week that produced seven deals on the 15 fields offered. The al-Fakkah field was not one of those fields.

Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report from Washington.

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