Iraqi troops massed Saturday near an oil well on the border in a standoff with Iranian forces that seized control of the site in a sudden flare up of tension between the two uneasy neighbors.
Iranian forces earlier this week crossed into Iraq, seizing an oil well just over the border in the southern Maysan province. The takeover - which included planting an Iranian flag on the well - was met by protests from Baghdad.
The Iraqi troops and border guards were waiting for further orders at a staging ground about a kilometer from oil well No. 4 at the al-Fakkah oil field, said an Interior Ministry official at the site who was not authorized to talk to the media.
Iraq is not going to be pushed around by Iran, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq said Saturday following an the Iranian oil well takeover.
U.S. officials said they approved of Iraq's speedy defense of its sovereignty amid ongoing concerns over Iran's influence on its Middle East neighbor.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill told reporters ,"It does speak to the overall view here that they are not going to be pushed around by Iran."
Iraqi authorities on Saturday prevented media representatives from visiting the area at the al-Fakkah oil field located about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Top Iraqi national security officials said the well was clearly in Iraqi territory and demanded that the Iranians leave immediately.
High-level diplomatic talks between Iraq and Iran are continuing, said Iraqi deputy foreign minister Labid Abbawi.
"The situation this morning is the same: the Iranians have not withdrawn from the well," Abbawi told The Associated Press, "We are still sticking to our position in demanding an immediate withdrawal of Iranian forces from the oil well."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Rahmin Mehmanparast denied that Tehran had seized the oil well and sought only to reduce tensions between the neighbors, accusing foreign media of spreading false news to disrupt good relations between Tehran and Baghdad.
Diplomatic and technical mechanisms were the way to deal with the issue, said Hasan Kazemi Qomi, the ambassador to Iraq, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters that the Iranian forces had withdrawn from the oil well as of Saturday morning. But an oil worker at the field said five Iranians remain inside the well, and the Iranian flag still flew above it.
The worker, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said Iranian troops were watching the well from a hillside on Iran's side of the border.
It was not clear as well what kind of Iranian forces had been at the well. An Iraqi official and an eyewitness described them as soldiers. The Iraqi government spokesman described them only as an armed Iranians.
Earlier Saturday, the top American military official said the oil well takeover appeared to be the latest example of Iran flexing its influence over Iraq and other Mideast nations. However, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen called it an issue for the Iraqi government to settle, and said there were no plans by the United States to intervene.
Once bitter enemies, Iraq and Iran settled into a more positive, if still uneasy, relationship after a Shiite-led government came to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"I continue to worry about the influence of Iran," Mullen, in Iraq for a two-day visit with U.S. and Iraqi authorities, said at a news conference in Baghdad, "I still think it's important that Iran have a constructive, positive influence in this region and globally. And there are just too many examples where that is not the case."
Odierno also said Iran continues to fund and train fighters in Iraq, as well as send weapons and equipment over the border - although less frequently now than in the past.
Analysts said it was too early to say whether the incident would mushroom into greater tension but said it could raise concerns with oil companies looking to invest in Iraq.
Oil prices rose slightly after news of the incident.
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