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 from both sides.
Border security is one of the main concerns 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 Iranian 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."
As of late Friday, the U.S. military had grown silent on the incident, directing queries to the Iraqi government. Earlier in the day, the Agence France-Presse news agency quoted U.S. Army Col. Peter Newell, an Army commander in Maysan, as saying the well in question is on Iraqi soil about 550 yards from an Iranian border fort.
Newell told the AFP that Iraqi oil workers make maintenance visits every few months, leave an Iraqi flag and paint Iraqi colors.
"They'll hang out there for a while, until they get tired, and as soon as they go away, the Iranians come down the hill and paint it Iranian colors and raise an Iranian flag. It happened about three months ago, and it will probably happen again," Newell told the AFP.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who spent years in exile in Iran and maintains good relations with leaders in Tehran, summoned his security chiefs for an emergency meeting on the matter, Iraqi state television reported.
"The Ministries of Defense and Interior are in high-level talks with the Ministry of Oil in order to have a clear stance announced by the Iraqi government as to what exactly happened," Interior Minister Jawad al Bolani told the Arabic-language al Arabiya satellite channel.
Iraq has an estimated 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the world's third largest, behind Saudi Arabia and Iran. Fakkah is the second largest of the 13 fields Iraq shares with Iran, with reserves of more than 550 million barrels, Hassani said. International oil analysts put Fakkah's reserves much higher.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq
Follow news from the Middle East at Middle East Diary
McClatchy Newspapers 2009