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suspicion in the borderlands

Saleem al-Wazzan
As US troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq, political analysts and security experts fear the prospect of an Iranian invasion of Iraq’s oilfields East of Basra. Recent Iranian military manoeuvres in border areas…
2.08.2010  |  Basra

"If Iran does not approve of the new Iraqi government, if the crisis remains unresolved or diplomatic developments in the region could all prompt Iran to undertake action against US and European interests in Iraq,” said Hussein Allawi, a political science professor at al-Nahrain University in Baghdad.

Iraqi security forces have been dispatched to the al-Fakkah oil field on reconnaissance missions. Four new military checkpoints were also set-up to enhance the Iraqi military presence in the area around al-Amara, where many of Basra’s oilfields are located.

Brigadier Musa Abdul Hassan, director of the southern oil police, explained that the troops were deployed to bolster the police presence and “protect the oilfields because of the problems on the border.”

Iraq’s border forces said they built observation posts in border areas, with local contractors building checkpoints.

The fear and preparations are not founded on nothing. In December 2009, a small Iranian force crossed the Iraqi border and seized the Fakkah oilfield in Moissan province. They raised the Iranian flag in the area.

The move triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two governments for the first time since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. A meeting between Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, and his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, brought about a negotiated solution.

"Iran may try once again after the withdrawal of the US forces to put pressure on the US and the American companies that have invested billions of dollars in the area,” said Hussein Allawi. “The move came just after Iraq signed the second round of oil contractors with international companies.”

The 15 oilfields in Basra province contain the biggest oil reserves in Iraq. 11 oil contracts were signed with major international firms. The Iranian exercises could have an effect on the economy.

“Foreign investors are already concerned about the unsettled security and political situation in Iraq,” says Jabbar al-Halfi, an economist, who is concerned about the Iraqi economy’s almost complete dependence on oil.

Officials try to play down the severity of the situation and limit concerns. Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, a Defence Ministry spokesperson, was unperturbed by the reports that he dismissed as “mere rumour”.

The General told Niqash that Iraqi troops are “ready and well-prepared to face any challenge. The country is secure.”

He also underlined that he expects any border disputes to be resolved through “peaceful and diplomatic channels by the Iraqi government.”

Most of Basra’s oilfields are far enough away from the border to be more difficult targets than the al-Fakkah fields. A high-ranking military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, wished to assure the population that his unit was still paying close attention to those potential Iranian targets.

"Sophisticated intelligence measures are taken by the Iraqi military. There are orders to declare a state of alert in case there is any attempt by the Iranians to target the oil fields.

"Iran would commit a 'strategic mistake' if it attempted to occupy Iraqi oilfields and we have all the necessary means to stop such attempts. We will not stand idle."

The officer revealed that US troops have pledged to assist Iraq against any external aggression, according to the SOFA security agreement signed between the two countries.

Some question the confidence of the military men, however. Abbas al-Jurani, who leads the Communist Party in Basra, fears that they are not prepared to face such a thing alone.

“We have seen the previous Iranian attacks on al-Fakkah oil fields. Those attacks revealed that our troops are not ready to repel any attack," he warns.

A police source involved in protecting the oil installations echoed Mr. al-Jurrani’s view.

“There are 30 oil fields on the borderline East of Basra unprotected by Iraqi forces. There are very few police stations and none are near the border. They have poor transport links because of the bad terrain. There is little in the way of army deployment, too.”

Dispute over the Iran-Iraq border has a long history. The 1975 Algiers Agreement between Saddam Hussein and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was supposed to settle the dispute but Saddam’s government abandoned it after the Shah’s overthrow, leading to the first Gulf War, which lasted from 1980-88.

The Iranians are also believed to be irritated at what they see as tacit US support for the banned Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) with the lifting by the US government of their ‘terrorist group’ status. It is quite possible that the Iranian pressure on the oilfields is designed to force the Iraqi and US hand.

Reports have surfaced of a proposed 1,300km wall to be erected along the border, which has caused alarm in Iraq, although the Iranian embassy in Baghdad strongly denies this.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran does not interfere in Iraqi affairs. There are no military reinforcements on the border with Iraq and there is no intention to build a wall. We are happy with the situation as it is."

Suspicion between the two countries will remain, however, and with the political power vacuum persisting and the Americans trying to negotiate a tricky troop withdrawal, it is unlikely they will be abated in the immediate future.