Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Dust, Wind and Land Mines: Fighting Smugglers on the Iran-Iraq Border

Capt. Jeremy Haley, the Border Transition Team's executive officer, speaks with Brig. Gen. Sammi, who runs a point of entry on the Iran-Iraq border. Haley interviewed Sammi about security and passed a list of individuals wanted by coalition forces. Photographer: Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division-Central

Iraqi border police search a man entering Iraq from Iran, Sept. 28. Photographer: Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division-Central

With Iranian flags flying behind them, Shiite pilgrims, headed to holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, approach Iraqi customs officials at the Iran-Iraq border, Sept. 28. Photographer: Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division-Central

Shiite pilgrims wait to board buses headed to holy sites in Karbala and Najaf at the Iran-Iraq border, Sept. 28. Photographer: Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division-Central

Amid the ruins of an Iraqi border police fort destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war, a new fort overlooks the heavily mined border. Photographer: Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division-Central

AL KUT, Iraq; Oct. 1, 2007 -- Rusted rocket engines, twisted scraps of steel and demolished buildings litter the Iran-Iraq border, stark reminders of the war that started nearly 30 years ago.

Only a few shepherds and farmers live in the mountainous, heavily mined area near the border crossing in Wasit province.

The area’s quiet desolation hides the fact that newly-trained insurgents and Iranian-produced weapons often must pass through here before wreaking havoc on central Iraq.

Under the direction of the Department of Border Enforcement, a few hundred Iraqi border police live at the point of entry and other forts along the border. At the remote border forts, camouflaged police patrol for smugglers and watch their Iranian counterparts from across a sea of land mines and razor wire.

Police at the border forts claim all the smuggling takes place at the point of entry, while POE police claim all the smugglers come over the mountains in view of the forts. But for someone who has worked in Baghdad, it is clear that somewhere along the border, weapons and trained Shiite militiamen are coming in from Iran.

“The passing of responsibility is a throwback to the Saddam days when, if you admitted failure, it was off with your head,” said Col. Mark Mueller, commander of the Border Transition Team, a U.S. unit that advises and supports Iraqi Border Police in Wasit province. “The reality is, stuff is coming through – we know because we capture it.”
Because of an agreement between the Iraqi and Iranian governments, a maximum of 1,200 people may pass into Iraq per day. After the fall of Saddam, about 10,000 Iranians crossed into Iraq each day, primarily to visit Shiite holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, according to Brig. Gen. Wissam Sammi, who oversees the point of entry.

“There were too many – we couldn’t search enough people or do checks on them,” Sammi said. “Now the number is manageable, but with more guards we can have more control.”
Shiite pilgrims still pass through the point of entry regularly, but so do huge convoys of tractor trailers, carrying goods to sell in Iraq. An enormous X-ray machine scans the trucks for contraband, but more reliable hand searches require manpower that is difficult to come by in the desert.

Recently, the BTT’s Nomad Team was able to hire 20 men to unload trucks and inspect cargo for a day.

“At $30 a worker per day, the border police can’t afford to hire people to help unload trucks, so that’s where we can help them accomplish their mission,” said Capt. Will Trenor of the BTT. “We also bring the border forts fuel to run their generators. They get some fuel from their own supply channels, but it’s not enough.”
Trenor and the Nomads drive the three hours from Forward Operating Base Delta to the border region regularly, and often spend the night at border police compounds.

“I’m about to qualify for my driver’s badge as captain,” said Trenor, who is a transportation officer. “You don’t see that too often.”
Plans are underway to move the BTT closer to the border, to better advise and assist the security forces there.

Near the point of entry, blue-suited construction workers driving bulldozers are leveling ground for a new coalition forces combat outpost.

Like a miniature version of the troop surge in Baghdad, the U.S. plan to turn security over to Iraqis here involves temporarily building up the coalition presence.

And like the program in Anbar, Baghdad and Babil provinces, security forces here increasingly rely on nationalist sheikhs to combat Shiite militias on the border.

During a BTT visit to one border fort, Sept. 28, Sheikh Fadhel Allami, captain of the Allami tribe, stopped in to discuss his plan to rid the area of militia influence.

“Our only loyalty is to Iraq – no militias or foreign governments will control us,” the amiable sheikh promised. “Iran wants to destroy Iraq. God willing, we will be better and stronger.”
Allami said the shepherds and farmers below Iran’s mountains are always watching their property, and will alert his men if smugglers come through.

The BTT is slated to start operating from the new border outpost in mid-November.

“Just in time for rainy season,” Trenor said.

(Story by Sgt. Ben Brody, Multi-National Division - Central.)

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