January 17, 2006

Iraq accuses Iran of seizing coastguards, Tehran denies

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


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 subsidizes fuel, some of which is then
transported and sold for big profits in neighboring 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

(Additional reporting by Abdel-Razzak Hameed in Abu Flous
and Alastair Macdonald and Michael Georgy in Baghdad)