Middle East

Iraq denies withdrawal of forces from Saudi border

Iraqi soldiers at Arar, near the Iraqi border with Saudi Arabia (28 June 2014) Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iraqi troops have been patrolling the border with Saudi Arabia looking for jihadist infiltrators

Iraqi military officials have denied that troops have abandoned positions along the border with Saudi Arabia.

Interior ministry spokesman Brig Gen Saad Maan told the BBC that the border force was functioning normally.

Earlier, al-Arabiya TV reported that Saudi Arabia had deployed 30,000 soldiers along the 900km (560-mile) frontier after Iraqi forces withdrew.

The Saudi personnel were fanning out along the border to prevent attacks by jihadist-led Sunni rebels, it said.

On Wednesday, King Abdullah discussed Iraq and the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) with US President Barack Obama in a telephone conversation.

Mr Obama also thanked him for the $500m (£291m) donation to the UN to help it address the humanitarian crisis caused by the insurgency in Iraq.

More than one million Iraqis have fled their homes over the month as Sunni rebels led by Isis overran Mosul, Tikrit and other cities and towns in the north and west. At least 2,461 people were killed in violent attacks in June, according to the UN and Iraqi authorities.

On Thursday afternoon, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that a group of 32 Turkish lorry drivers who were seized last month in northern Iraq by Isis had been handed over to Turkish diplomats and would be flown to Ankara.

Mr Davutoglu said Turkey would continue its efforts to secure the release of 49 other Turkish citizens, including children, diplomats and special forces personnel, who were still being held.

India's foreign ministry said 46 Indian nurses being held by militants in Tikrit were safe, but were being forced to move to a new area controlled by the militants.

It added that 40 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were also unharmed.

Amnesty offer

Western officials in the Iraqi capital said they had no reason to believe that the reported Saudi troop movement had come in response to any direct threat along the border, the BBC's Paul Adams in Baghdad reports.

Their view was that such moves were more likely to represent a prudent step in light of the chaotic situation in Iraq, our correspondent adds.

About 10 days ago, there were reports of clashes between Isis and the Iraqi army in the town of Nukhayb, around 120km (75 miles) from the Saudi border, with witnesses talking about Iraqi troops fleeing towards the Shia holy city of Karbala, about 100km (60 miles) south of Baghdad.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There were deadly clashes between Iraqi troops and a Shia cleric's followers in Karbala on Wednesday
Image copyright AP
Image caption The fighting erupted when the authorities attempted to arrest the cleric, Mahmoud al-Sarkhi
Image copyright AFP
Image caption More than one million Iraqis have been displaced by the fighting over the past month

Al-Arabiya published a video showing what the Saudi-owned channel said were about 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in the desert east of Karbala who had been ordered to leave their posts along the border with Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, up to 45 people were killed in clashes between Iraqi security forces and armed followers of a radical Shia cleric in Karbala, security sources told the Reuters news agency.

The clashes reportedly erupted when police and soldiers, backed by helicopter gunships, tried to arrest Mahmoud al-Sarkhi around midnight on Tuesday, after his supporters started blocking roads and setting up checkpoints around his stronghold in the city.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, reported that Isis had seized control of Syria's largest oil field, al-Omar in Deir al-Zour province, after rival fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front withdrew.