News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIranian raises possibility of an intrusion into Iraq

Iranian raises possibility of an intrusion into Iraq


New York Times: In a sharp escalation of a dispute over border fighting, an official Iranian delegation at a diplomatic conference here warned Sunday that if the Iraqi government could not stop militants from crossing into Iran and carrying out attacks, the Iranian authorities would respond militarily. The New York Times

Published: September 10, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept. 9 — In a sharp escalation of a dispute over border fighting, an official Iranian delegation at a diplomatic conference here warned Sunday that if the Iraqi government could not stop militants from crossing into Iran and carrying out attacks, the Iranian authorities would respond militarily.

The Iranian delegation, led by a deputy foreign minister, Mohammad R. Baqiri, also charged that the United States was supporting groups believed to be mounting attacks from Iraqi territory in the Kurdish north.

Mr. Baqiri did not specifically say that Iran would enter Iraq militarily, but his statements, couched in diplomatic terms, raised the clear possibility that Iranian forces could cross the border in pursuit of the militants. But however carefully phrased his statements, many of those distinctions are likely to be lost on hundreds of families on the Iraqi side who have been driven from their villages by weeks of intermittent shelling from Iran.

Hundreds of Kurds demonstrated Sunday against the shelling in the northern provincial capital of Erbil. They gathered outside the Kurdish Parliament building and asked that the northern government and the United Nations intervene.

Senior Iranian officials have privately acknowledged to their Iraqi counterparts that the shelling is taking place in response to guerrilla attacks by a group opposed to the Iranian government that has bases on the Iraqi side of the border. At the conference on Sunday, at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Mr. Baqiri did not directly address the shelling, but he told officials from 16 nations, the Arab League, the Islamic Conference and the United Nations that it was time for Iraq to take action.

“Supporting military and political actions by terrorist elements in Iraq against neighboring countries is considered dangerous behavior that we cannot tolerate, and a major factor in the chaotic security situation and instability in the region,” Mr. Baqiri told the assembled delegates, according to an Arabic translation of his remarks, which were made in Persian. “We are waiting for the Iraqi government to do what it takes to resolve this issue.”

Later, asked at a briefing about the shelling, Mr. Baqiri said that in dealing with “terrorists who want to enter Iranian soil,” the Iranian government “will confront them and stop them.”

“We have a long history in standing against terrorist groups,” Mr. Baqiri said. “We have made many sacrifices because of this, and we know how to confront these groups.”

Mr. Baqiri’s comments are likely to raise tensions against the bloody backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted throughout much of the 1980s and began with a border dispute in the south. Perhaps by design, his words seemed especially jarring because they were delivered during a conference organized to promote harmony in the region.

That conference was organized by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, led by Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who fought Saddam Hussein’s government as a guerrilla commander, often operating essentially as an ally of Iran. But in a diplomatic meeting in Tehran last week, Mr. Zebari called the shelling indiscriminate and far out of proportion to the threat to Iran.

On Sunday, Mr. Zebari acknowledged that the cross-border attacks were taking place, but described them as infrequent and more of a nuisance than a real threat. Still, Mr. Zebari agreed that it fell to the Iraqi government to rein in the groups.

“But at the same time we want this shelling to stop or end because it’s causing a great deal of unease, and we don’t want to see the atmosphere of confidence to be compromised by these continuing acts,” Mr. Zebari said.

The group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, called Pezak or Pejak for its acronym, is believed to be made up mainly of Iranian Kurds seeking autonomy for Kurds in Iran. Asked specifically about that group, Mr. Baqiri stated publicly what Iranian officials have been claiming privately for months: that the United States supports the group.

This support, Mr. Baqiri said, amounted to a “double standard” in American policy, given that the United States has repeatedly accused Iran of exporting deadly roadside bombs to Iraq and supporting armed groups here. Those weapons and support, American officials believe, have led directly to the deaths of American and Iraqi troops and other security forces.

Told late Sunday of Mr. Baqiri’s accusations, a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, said, “I am not aware of any support being provided” to Pejak.

While Mr. Baqiri’s comments appeared to be a direct response to the criticisms leveled by Mr. Zebari in Tehran, their precise timing was unlikely to be coincidental, occurring as they did the day before crucial reports on progress in Iraq were to be delivered to Congress by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. Iran bitterly opposes the American presence in Iraq.

For all the accusations leveled by the Iraqis and the Iranians, the conference, attended by this reporter at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry, offered an extraordinary glimpse into a regional dynamic that generally takes place behind closed doors.

At a gathering in March, Mr. Zebari managed to bring the United States and Iran to the same conference table to discuss issues relating to Iraq. Along with representatives of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and other nations, the United States and Iran were once again seated at the same table, albeit nearly as far apart as the table’s geometry would allow.

And the chill between the two nations was palpable. “The fact is that because of our great love for Iraq, we agreed to come here and sit at one table with our enemies,” Mr. Baqiri said.

The American delegation, led by Patricia A. Butenis, the chargé d’affaires here while Mr. Crocker is in Washington, did not respond to that statement. But the overall dynamic in the room became starkly visible when Mr. Zebari proposed creating a “secretariat” to keep track of the Iraq issues being considered at the meetings.

When it became apparent that the United States and Britain backed Mr. Zebari’s proposal, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others quickly took the floor to shoot the proposal down. The conference ended with the issue unresolved.

Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from northern Iraq.

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