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Border oil dispute worsens fears about Iran’s influence over Iraqi government


ImageWashington Post: A dispute between Iraq and Iran over an inactive oil well has become a rallying cry for Iraqi nationalists and exacerbated fears of excessive Iranian influence in Baghdad. The Washington Post

By Michael Hastings
Saturday, January 9, 2010; A06

ImageBAGHDAD — A dispute between Iraq and Iran over an inactive oil well has become a rallying cry for Iraqi nationalists and exacerbated fears of excessive Iranian influence in Baghdad.

The fight for Fakka oil well No. 4 began late last month when a contingent of 11 Iranian troops occupied the relatively insignificant well in Iraq's Maysan province near the shared border. Forces from both sides are now dug in a few hundred yards apart, the oil well between them, about 250 miles east of Baghdad.

The incident has inflamed passions in Iraq over two deeply sensitive subjects: sovereignty and oil.

Iraqi and Iranian officials began talks this week to settle the dispute. But in Iraq, the incident has turned into a litmus test for political parties and candidates running in nationwide elections scheduled for early March.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Shiite Iran's influence has steadily grown in Iraq. Many of the Iraqi leaders installed early on by the Americans spent years in exile in Iran, and Iranian money, weapons and intelligence agents have flooded across a border that neither the Iraqis nor the Americans have been able to control. Many Iraqis say they fear that their country will become a de facto client state of Iran as the United States leaves.

Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites alike share the concerns.

Aawadh al-Abbidan, a candidate for parliament, announced that the Lions of God Brigade, a group he said was made up of 126 southern tribes, mostly Shiite, was ready to defend Iraq's oil fields.

"We want to solve this peacefully, so we will not carry arms even though we are allowed," he said. "But we can call upon a million Iraqis, from Anbar to Basra, to defend against the Iranian occupation. No matter what the cost, we will defend our fields."

Another Shiite tribal leader in the south, Kadom al-Rubat, called the incursion "an insult to the martyrs who gave their lives in the war against Iran," a long conflict in the 1980s fought largely over the border.

Sunni politicians denounced what they called the feckless response of the Iraqi security forces — the incursion was met with no resistance — whom they accuse of being compromised by Iranian influence.

"More than once we've warned that there is a big Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs," said Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlak. "The officials in the government keep neglecting this matter, saying that there is no irrefutable evidence. Do we need more evidence, more than what we are witnessing today?"

The most dominant Shiite political alliance — a union blessed by Iran that includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrist movement — offered a more cautious assessment.

Amar al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose leaders spent years in exile in Iran and whose rank and file fought against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, chastised other political parties for making "fiery declarations, irritating speeches and direct accusations."

A spokesman for the Sadrists — whose leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, is studying in the Iranian city of Qom — issued a subdued statement on the movement's Web site on Dec. 30, saying its members were "keen on acquiring all the details of the matter." It concluded that the Iranians were "wrong" but said that the issue had been turned into "electoral propaganda."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has struggled to balance his relationship with Iran, denounced the incursion — 10 days after it had occurred. He declared that the Iranians would not get "one drop of Iraqi oil" or "one meter of Iraqi land."

"The Iranians didn't go back to their previous location," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government. "We urged them to pull completely back beyond our borders, but they have not done so."

The United States has spent $1.1 billion on Iraqi border security since 2003, according to military officials, and part of the U.S. withdrawal strategy involves arming Iraq with new weapons, border surveillance systems and aircraft to defend against Iran and other regional threats.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, said the United States supported the Iraqi government's efforts to resolve the issue through dialogue.

The Iranians have declared the incident a "misunderstanding," after initially denying it had taken place.

That did not stop Iraqis from theorizing about ulterior motives and hidden plots.

Some Iraqis said the Americans had let the Iranians have the oil field as a "gift," while others insisted that the Iraqi government, under Tehran's spell, had decided to give the oil to Iran.

Whatever the motives, the flare-up appears destined to become another intractable issue for Iraq.

"This is not an issue of resolving a dispute," Dabbagh said. "We are quite sure this is our land. We have proof this is our land."

Hastings is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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