Friday, March 30, 2007

A Deadly U.S.-Iran Firefight
Friday, Mar. 30, 2007 By MARK KUKIS/BAQUBAH

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US soldiers stand near their vehicle at the Iraq-Iran border crossing point of Bashmakh in the province of Kurdistan, March 3, 2007.
Thibauld Malterre / AFP / Getty


The soldiers who were there still talk about the September 7 firefight on the Iran-Iraq border in whispers. At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the main U.S. military outpost in Iraq's eastern Diyala Province bordering Iran, U.S. troops recount events reluctantly, offering details only on condition that they remain nameless. Everyone seems to sense the possible consequences of revealing that a clash between U.S. and Iranian forces had turned deadly. And although the Pentagon has acknowledged that a firefight took place, it says it cannot say anything more. "For that level of detail, you're going to have to ask the [U.S.] military in Baghdad," says Army Lieut. Col. Mark Ballesteros. "We don't know anything about it."

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A short Army press release issued on the day of the skirmish offered the following information: U.S. soldiers from the 5th Squadron 73rd Cavalry 82nd Airborne were accompanying Iraqi forces on a routine joint patrol along the border with Iran, about 75 miles east of Baghdad, when they spotted two Iranian soldiers retreating from Iraqi territory back into Iran. A moment later, U.S. and Iraqi forces came upon a third Iranian soldier on the Iraqi side of the border, who stood his ground. As U.S. and Iraqi soldiers approached the Iranian officer and began speaking with him, a platoon of Iranian soldiers appeared and moved to surround the coalition patrol, taking up positions on high ground. At that point, according to the Army's statement, the Iranian captain told the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers that if they tried to leave they would be fired on. Fearing abduction by the Iranians, U.S. troops moved to go anyway, and fighting broke out. Army officials say the Iranian troops fired first with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, and that U.S. troops fell further back into Iraqi territory, while four Iraqi army soldiers, one interpreter and one Iraqi border guard remained in the hands of the Iranians.
The official release says there were no casualties among the Americans, and makes no mention of any on the Iranian side. U.S. soldiers present at the firefight, however, tell TIME that American forces killed at least one Iranian soldier who had been aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at their convoy of Humvees.

The revelation comes amid rising tensions over the past week since Iran captured 15 British Navy personnel in waters between Iran and Iraq. Analysts have suggested that some Iranian officials have argued against speedily returning the Brits, preferring to use them as a bargaining chip in Tehran's efforts to free five of its own officials captured by the U.S. in Erbil earlier this year. News that an Iranian soldier had been killed in a clash with American forces would do little to ease those tensions.

In the months after the incident, U.S. forces have kept up joint patrols on the Iran-Iraq border, where their movements are closely monitored by Iranian outposts. Increasingly, however, U.S. troops stationed in Diyala Province are moving to help counter-insurgency efforts in the Baqubah area, leaving a thinner American presence at the border. On some days, says Lt. Col. Ronald Ward, the U.S. commander tasked with helping Iraqi units maintain border security in the area, no U.S. troops appear there at all.
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http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1605487,00.html