By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
BAGHDAD, March 16 -- American warplanes shot down an unmanned Iranian aircraft last month as it flew over Iraqi territory, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Monday.
The U.S. military said it had tracked the drone for about an hour and 10 minutes before shooting it down Feb. 25 about 60 miles northeast of the capital, Baghdad.
"This was not an accident on the part of the Iranians," the military said.
U.S. military officials in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they could not recall the United States ever before publicly acknowledging the downing of an unmanned Iranian aircraft.
The incident comes at a delicate time in Iranian-U.S. relations, which have grown strained at times over allegations that Iran has supported groups fighting American troops here. In a departure from Bush administration policy, President Obama has said he would be open to engaging Iran, which borders both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials at Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries confirmed the U.S. military report. An official at the Interior Ministry, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the drone was downed about 12 miles inside Iraqi territory near the town of Balad Ruz in Diyala province. He said the U.S. military had suggested to Iraqi officials that the drone was trying to scout routes to smuggle Iranian weapons into the country.
Iranian officials have not commented on the downing of the aircraft, which the U.S. military identified as an Ababil 3.
Although many Iraqis harbor deep bitterness toward Iran over the eight-year war they fought in the 1980s, relations are generally good between the two governments.
One issue between them is the fate of followers of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, or MEK, an armed Iranian opposition group that was aligned with deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the MEK's camp 40 miles north of Baghdad has been under American military protection, despite the group's being designated a terrorist organization by the United States. But Iraqi officials have repeatedly declared that they intend to expel the 3,500 people there as soon as this month, through repatriation or relocation to a third country.
Officials with the MEK said Iraqi forces have surrounded the camp since last week, blocking anyone from coming or going and preventing supplies from entering.
An official with the National Security Ministry on Monday denied that assertion but reiterated Iraq's intention to expel members from the camp.
The U.S. military said a soldier was killed in Baghdad, the fourth to die in combat this month. The military released no other details, but Interior Ministry officials said two improvised mines detonated near a U.S. patrol Monday in the Dora neighborhood.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon and special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.