At border of Syria, Iraq, time to wait and worry

Travelers: International conflict touches visitors in the form of red tape, U.S. troops and the threat of bandits.

December 02, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AL TANF, Syria - It took Amin Khaidi the better part of a day to get even this far on his way to Iraq, to this place of waiting and worrying. He began in bustling Aleppo, in Syria's north, then drove the 30-year-old truck he inherited from his father through a numbing expanse of rocks and sand until he reached this border post, amid more sand and rocks, under a sky bleached white.

This is where every vehicle heading from Syria into Iraq waits, and then waits some more.

"My grandfather was a truck driver, my father was a truck driver," Khaidi said with pride. But his grandfather's generation didn't face the daylong delays on this side of the border or the complications of an American military presence and the threats of well-armed bandits on the other.

"We used to make the drive even at night. Now we're scared."

Syrian officials themselves are, if not scared, extremely anxious. The country's 300-mile border with Iraq has become an especially sensitive area since the United States' overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Bush administration officials, beginning this summer, said they believed hundreds of armed fighters had crossed into Iraq from Syria or Iran. Syrian officials firmly deny that anyone entered Iraq with Syria's permission or encouragement.

But they caution that the border can't be perfectly sealed. More than 350 people trying to cross illegally have been arrested, officials say, but they offer no details about the identity of those detained.

Syria both loathed and profited from Hussein's Iraq. Loathed it because the two countries were longtime rivals in seeking to become leader of the Arab world and because Syria criticized Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and sent troops to fight on the side of the United States.

Syria later profited handsomely by buying Iraqi oil at bargain prices and by having in Iraq a prime market for Syrian-made pharmaceuticals and other goods.

The traffic is only a trickle of what it once was, and all the legal traffic heads here, to the border post 160 miles northeast of Damascus. No town or village is visible in the last 80 miles. Bedouin and their sheep share the area with a scattering of military posts and the two-lane highway, crossing streambeds that contain water a few days a year.

The Bedouin, before and now after the war, have never considered a border of much importance. Their extended clans live on both sides. Areas suitable for grazing lie on both sides, too. The ground is so nearly bare, some of the herders depend on animal feed trucked from Damascus. Given those conditions, traveling across a nearly invisible border in near-desert never seemed a grave matter.

"The war?" said Mohammed el-Khalid, standing amid nearly nothing. "No change at all." He and a donkey were overseeing 250 sheep nibbling at little more than rocks. The sheep were the last creatures in sight before the border. "The war was a long way from here."

Most of the road traffic consists of tractor-trailers like Khaidi's. His two open-topped trailers overflowed with bales of old clothing rendered into rags and fiber - 18 tons of rags for use in mattresses and cheap furniture in Iraq.

About a dozen of the trucks idling near the customs building carried plastic foam crates of tomatoes. There were cargoes of potatoes and empty plastic water tanks. A long line of flatbed trucks carried prefabricated houses. A Baghdad taxi arrived for the trip home stuffed with cucumbers, crates of them filling the back seat to the roof and more about to spill from the trunk.

Between here and the open road in Iraq, drivers have to satisfy the Syrians, then the Americans on the other side of a four- to five-mile-wide no-man's-land and a contingent of Iraqi border police.

It can take a day, sometimes two, for truck drivers to satisfy the Syrians.

"The frontier is almost closed," said the Syrian captain commanding the front office at the passport building, his red shoulder boards almost large enough to serve as wings. The local customs chief joined him, as did an official even more senior, who made a show of making sure that a foreigner and an official from Damascus had the right permits to visit such a sensitive site.

Every driver and passenger needed advance permission from authorities to cross into Iraq, the captain said. His desk was uncluttered. Three phones sat atop a dusty windowsill, near a silent fax machine. He didn't want to give his name; a lieutenant colonel elsewhere in the building might feel slighted.

About 200 to 250 trucks a day entered Iraq from Al Tanf, plus a maximum of 50 private cars, the captain said. Based on the number of cars passing the first set of gates over a period of several hours, his numbers seemed low. The captain apologized for the lack of more precise figures.

If someone arrived without the necessary paperwork, "We'll call the immigration office," the captain said. "If they let you go, you go. If not, you turn back."

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