U.S.-led coalition to close Iraq-Iran border crossings

Number will be cut to 3 within a week

move is effort to tighten controls

March 14, 2004|By Mike Dorning | Mike Dorning,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S.-led coalition announced yesterday that it would close most of Iraq's border crossings with Iran as it moves to tighten frontier controls to try to keep out foreign insurgents.

Within a week, the coalition will cut the number of official border crossing points with Iran from 19 to 3 and over the next year will double the number of border police nationally.

The new border policy comes after a devastating series of bombings targeting Iraqi holy sites during a major Islamic religious festival this month. More than 180 people were killed in attacks in Karbala and Baghdad.

The carnage stirred complaints from leading Iraqi clerics and political figures that U.S. authorities were not adequately securing the country's borders against infiltration by foreign fighters.

Large numbers of Iranian pilgrims cross the border to visit Islamic holy sites in Iraq, particularly during important religious festivals. An influx of Iranian visitors is expected again next month for another major religious holiday that also is considered a likely opportunity for terrorist attacks.

The move to tighten border crossings also comes after months of complaints from the U.S. occupation authority that Syria and Iran are not doing enough to control their borders with Iraq.

A delegation from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council was in Tehran pressing the point yesterday when the new border controls were announced.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the stricter border controls, which also call for photographing visitors and tracking their movements in and out by computer, will be phased in, with visitors from Iran covered first and those from Syria next.

Foreign infiltrators are frequently blamed by the Iraqi public and political leaders for terrorist bombings that target civilians. The Bush administration has also often focused in public statements on the threat posed by foreign fighters in Iraq.

However, U.S. military officials have generally played down the significance of foreigners in the anti-American insurgency. Instead, military officers have portrayed the resistance as primarily drawn from former beneficiaries of the deposed Baathist regime and native Islamic fundamentalists.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the coalition, said that only about 150 of the more than 10,000 people being detained by the coalition hold foreign passports.

Coalition officials acknowledged that, even with more stringent measures, the country's 2,270 miles of rugged borders would remain porous.

Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed two soldiers from the newly arrived 1st Infantry Division yesterday and wounded several others as they patrolled in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Also, an explosion at a store in Baghdad killed a shopkeeper who was the brother-in-law to a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Yesterday, about 100 heavily armed soldiers poured out of the main U.S. military base in Tikrit, searching for evidence and quizzing locals for information about the bomb that killed two American soldiers and wounded three others.

The slain soldiers were the first casualties suffered by the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, which took over control of the restive Sunni Triangle town of Tikrit yesterday.

"We have arrested several people and continue to question them," Capt. Tim Crowe said. "We believe they may have been connected with what happened."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of Friday, 558 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations, and 2,788 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 420 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest Identifications

Army Spc. Edward W. Brabazon, 20, Philadelphia; died Tuesday in Baghdad, Iraq, from a nonhostile gunshot wound; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division; Fort Bragg, N.C.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard S. Gottfried, 42, Lake Ozark, Mo.; killed by an explosive Tuesday in Iraq; assigned to the 1st Division Support Command, 1st Infantry Division; Kitzengen, Germany.

Army Pfc. Bert E. Hoyer, 23, Ellsworth, Wis.; killed Wednesday in Baqubah, Iraq, when an explosive hit his convoy; assigned to the 652nd Engineer Company, Army Reserve, Ellsworth, Wis.

- Associated Press

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