Reuters: Iraq demanded on Tuesday the release of coastguards it said were seized by Iran during a clash involving suspected oil smugglers on their tidal frontier, but Iran’s Baghdad embassy denied all knowledge of the incident.
By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq demanded on Tuesday the release of coastguards it said were seized by Iran during a clash involving suspected oil smugglers on their tidal frontier, but Iran’s Baghdad embassy denied all knowledge of the incident.
The affair, in which Iraqi officers said one of their men was badly wounded, is a test for the new warmth in relations between Baghdad and Tehran since pro-Iranian Shi’ites took control in Iraq following the U.S. ousting of Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari was raising the issue with Iranian charge d’affaires Hasan Kazemi-Qomi at a meeting called in part to discuss the incident, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Iraqi officials, in confusing statements, have said nine or 10 coastguards were seized on Saturday or Sunday in the Shatt al-Arab estuary between Basra and the Gulf. The tidal frontier between the two states has been long disputed.
But Kazemi-Qomi said through a spokeswoman: “The reports of this incident are untrue.” He made no further comment.
A spokeswoman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said eight men from the coastguard and an officer had been taken prisoner by Iranian coastguards.
A senior officer running Iraqi patrol boats on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, between the city of Basra and the open waters of the Gulf, said one coastguard had been badly wounded by gunfire when Iranian forces intervened as an Iraqi patrol was attempting to search a ship suspected of smuggling oil.
The local governor said an Iraqi coastguard had been killed.
Iraq and Iran have a long history of disputes along their tidal border. Iran seized three British naval patrol boats in the same area on its border with Iraq in June 2004, at a time when British forces were responsible for policing there.
But relations between Baghdad and Tehran are at the warmest in decades with the arrival in power of Shi’ite leaders since the fall of Saddam’s Sunni Arab-dominated government.
Many of those new leaders sought refuge in Shi’ite Iran during the 1980-88 war Saddam fought against Tehran, in part triggered by disputes over the river and maritime frontier.
Jaafari has visited Tehran and his Islamist-led government’s close relations with Iran have alarmed the United States, which is at daggers drawn with the Shi’ite Islamic republic, most recently over accusations Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Lieutenant Colonel Ziyad Majid Wali, a Coast Guard commander in the Iraqi port of Abu Flous on the Shatt al-Arab, told Reuters: “The incident on the 15th … resulted in the arrest of our patrol by an Iranian patrol … An officer and nine guards are still detained along with their boats.”
He said the problem began when Iraqi coastguards had approached a ship, the Nour 1, which they suspected was involved in smuggling oil, close to the Iranian port of Abadan.
Smuggling is a major problem for the Iraqi government, which heavily subsidises fuel, some of which is then transported and sold for big profits in neighbouring countries.
Mohammed al-Wa’ili, regional governor of Basra, told Al Jazeera television the incident occurred on Saturday.
“When they saw our boats coming closer to the ship … the captain of this ship, who is Iranian, was able to call Iranian forces … and Iranian boats then opened fire on our boats,” he said. “This is not the first time that Iranian forces have attacked our patrols.”
Coast Guard commander Wali said he doubted Iranian forces acted with higher authority: “I don’t think the governor of Abadan would issue such an order. Those are acts and errors by individuals. Sometimes it happens to us and it happens to them.”
(Additional reporting by Abdel-Razzak Hameed in Abu Flous and Alastair Macdonald and Michael Georgy in Baghdad)