Mil News Britain, Iran came close to conflict in Iraq: report

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LONDON (AFP) - British forces, under pressure from US commanders, almost launched major combat operations against Iranian troops who had encroached over the southeastern Iraqi border in July last year, a leading defence publication said.

"Iranian troops -- reportedly from the more radical Revolutionary Guard rather than the regular army -- moved across the border to the north and east of Basra," said an article in Defence Analysis magazine.

Some 9,000 British forces are based in and around the southern Iraqi town of Basra, charged with maintaining security in the south of the country.

"Iranian forces were said to have moved across one of the disputed borderlines, and were digging in," the magazine said quoting senior defence sources.

"US General Ricardo Sanchez ... reportedly requested British forces in the area to prepare plans for offensive operations, if it proved that the Iranians were unwilling to pull back behind the internationally recognised borders," the article said.

"Eventually diplomatic negotiations managed to achieve a pull-back of Iranian forces, so offensive use of British troops was not needed," it said.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Wednesday that British troops on the ground had to calm down their Iranian counterparts after US commanders almost provoked a conflict with Iran.

The incident, which lasted about a week, was resolved in by a telephone call between British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi, the newspaper said.

Defence Analysis said the United Nations finally mediated a resolution between the two nations and installed new border markers.

"I think the Telegraph has spun it a wee bit heavily," Defence Analysis editor Francis Tusa told AFP.

"The comments from the senior (British) officer involved were the Iranians were digging in, putting up defences, watchtowers," he said.

"I think you'll find (the British) chose to be very diplomatic and sort of assumed that the Iranians had misread their maps."

Wednesday's reports come hot on the heels of last week's crisis between Iran and Britain when eight British servicemen were detained for three days by the Islamic Republic for straying into Iranian waters.

The team had been taking a boat back to Basra after repairs in the port of Umm Qasr when they were detained on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides southern Iraq from Iran.

The team has been training Iraqis to patrol the country's waterways to keep out smugglers and militants seeking to infiltrate Iraq to fight against the US-led coalition.

The border incident at one point threatened to spiral into a major crisis when Iran said it could put the men on trial and came amid a fresh downturn in relations between Tehran and London. The men were finally handed over on Thursday.

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