SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi border guards exchanged fire with Iranian troops along the two countries’ border on Thursday, the first major incident between the two since Iran took over a disputed oil well in December.
An Iraqi officer was captured by the Islamic Republic’s forces in the 90-minute gunfight on the border with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, which was apparently sparked when Iranian troops mistook Iraqi soldiers for a Kurdish rebel group.
“Iranian forces thought that the border guards belonged to PJAK (the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan — an Iranian Kurdish rebel group) and started to open fire,” Brigadier General Ahmed Gharib Diskara, the head of Iraq’s border guards in Sulaimaniyah province, told reporters.
“The border guards shot back and one officer of the Iraqi army has been captured. Negotiations are ongoing to free him.”
There was no immediate comment from Iran or the US military, which is involved in training Iraq’s border guards.
The Iraqi border guards involved in the incident were formerly members of the Kurdish peshmerga, the guerrilla force that fought against Saddam and led a campaign for autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan but has since partly been integrated into the Iraqi military.
Gharib said the shooting took place in a mountainous part of the two countries’ border known as Shamiran, 90 kilometres (55 miles) southeast of Sulaimaniyah, the Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-biggest city.
PJAK is a Kurdish rebel group in Iran’s northwest. It is closely allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which operates in Turkey and is listed as a “terrorist” group by Ankara and much of the international community.
The last incident along the Iran-Iraq border was in December, when Iranian forces took control of an Iraqi oil well on disputed territory, but there were no clashes and the Iranian forces eventually withdrew.
In May 2009, Iranian helicopters attacked three Iraqi Kurdish villages in a cross-border raid, the first time Iran used aircraft against Kurdish rebels. There were no casualties.
Tehran has also accused the United States of training “terrorists” in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey all have significant ethnic Kurdish minorities.
Under the late president Saddam Hussein’s regime, Tehran and Baghdad fought a devastating 1980-1988 war in which around one million people were killed.
Relations between Baghdad and Tehran have warmed considerably since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam by US-led forces, although many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to eye Iran with suspicion.
The border between Iraq and Iran is not clearly marked in the mountainous Kurdish region.
In July 2009, three US hikers were arrested by Iran after they apparently crossed the border from Iraqi Kurdistan by mistake. They are still being held.