- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq deployed security forces Saturday near a remote oil well seized by Iran, officials said, and its government pressed Tehran to withdraw its forces from the area along their disputed southern border.

U.S. officials applauded Iraq for standing its ground against Iran — an uneasy ally that analysts said was aiming to remind its neighbor of its economic and political pull in its takeover of the oil well Thursday. The site is located in one of the largest oil fields in Iraq and has about 1.5 billion barrels in reserves.

The standoff was a dramatic display of the occasionally tense relations between the two oil-rich nations that fought an eight-year war in the 1980s but now share common ground in Shiite-led governments.

“Again, we ask Iran to be committed to the good relations that they announced with Iraq and its nation, and to withdraw its forces immediately,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiyah TV. “This is the demand of Iraq, and we call Iran to be committed with that.”

Iran, however, appeared undeterred.

In a statement, the Iranian military denied it violated Iraq’s sovereignty and cited a 1975 border agreement in claiming the oil well as part of Iran’s territory.

“Our forces are on our own soil and, based on the known international borders, this well belongs to Iran,” the Iranian military said in a statement to Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam satellite television.

Iraqi army and police reinforcements were sent to a staging ground about a half-mile (1 kilometer) from well No. 4 at the al-Fakkah oil field, according to two Iraqi officials close to the site. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

One of the Iraqi officials said Iranian soldiers came and went from the oil well throughout Saturday. They were gone by the evening, leaving behind an Iranian flag mounted at the well, the official said.

The oil field, parts of which both countries claim as theirs, is located about 200 miles (about 320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. It was unclear how many troops were involved, and Iraqi forces barred journalists from approaching the area.

The standoff spurred an emergency meeting of Iraq’s national security council and high-level diplomatic talks between Baghdad and Tehran. U.S. officials, already worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, praised what they described as Baghdad’s quick but measured response to the dispute.

“It does speak to the overall view here that they are not going to be pushed around by Iran,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill told reporters.

Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hasan Kazemi Qomi, said he would use “diplomatic and technical mechanisms” to soothe tensions. And a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry accused foreign media of trying to “disrupt good relations” between Tehran and Baghdad.

Experts said it is doubtful that Iran is seeking to provoke Iraq, its only other Shiite-led ally in the Middle East.

Instead, Iran appears to be reasserting its place as having the world’s second-largest oil reserves at a time when Iraq is looking to cash in on their own, said Alex Vatanka of the Mideast Institute, a Washington think-tank.

Oil fields along the disputed border have been frozen for years because of Iraq’s longtime inability to entice investors to drill. Iraq is planning to open some oil fields over the next decade and has held two rounds of bidding this year — the first since the war — to develop some sites. Al-Fakkah was among three fields that were combined in one offer in the first round of bidding in June, but the proposal fell through.

At the same time, Iran’s leaders may be feeling more isolated as the result of its domestic political unrest and international disapproval of its nuclear program.

“They are not looking for conflict — this is their way of projecting power,” Vatanka said. “They are saying, ‘Because we’re isolated, because we have internal problems, it doesn’t mean you can go in here and sign a deal on an oil field that is very close to our border without consulting us.’”

Once bitter enemies, Iraq and Iran settled into a more positive, albeit tenuous, relationship after a Shiite-led government came to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. U.S. military officials say Iran continues to fund and train fighters in Iraq and send weapons and equipment over the border — although less frequently now than in the past.

Adm. Mike Mullen, America’s top military official said the oil well incident must be resolved between Iran and Iraq, and there were no plans by the United States to intervene.

In Baghdad during a two-day visit to Iraq, Mullen said Saturday that he remains worried about Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

___

Associated Press Writers Anne Gearan and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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