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

An Iraqi worker gestures as he kisses an oil pipeline at one of the Fakka wells near Amara, 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Baghdad, December 25, 2009.
An Iraqi worker gestures as he kisses an oil pipeline at one of the Fakka wells near Amara, 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Baghdad, December 25, 2009. (Atef Hassan - )
By Michael Hastings
Saturday, January 9, 2010

BAGHDAD -- 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.

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