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Iraq troops in standoff with Iran over oil well

Updated: 2009-12-20 10:53
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Iraq troops in standoff with Iran over oil well
An Iraqi soldier takes up a sentry point overlooking one of Fakka wells near Amara, 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Baghdad, December 19, 2009. [Agencies]

BAGHDAD: 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 US 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 about a kilometer 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.

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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 (about 320 kilometers) 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.

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"The situation this morning is the same: the Iranians have not withdrawn from the well," Abbawi told The Associated Press.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.

Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of US 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.

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