U.S. to build watchtower at Iran-Iraq border

Structure to target smuggling of shipments that authorities allege are illegal arms for war

October 21, 2007|By Sam Enriquez | Sam Enriquez,Los Angeles Times

ZURBATIYA, Iraq -- About 300 trucks cross the border here every day, ferrying fruit, rugs and building supplies from Iran - and, if U.S. authorities are to be believed, illegal weapons.

Intercepting the smuggled arms should be simple enough, because shipments have to be unloaded from Iranian trucks and transferred to Iraqi trucks at the border. The trouble is, the reloading is done on the Iranian side, behind a wall.

So the U.S. is planning to build a 100-foot watchtower for Iraqi border agents. This solution is one of many to seal a 900-mile desert and mountain border that U.S. authorities allege is used by smugglers to ferry Iranian-made explosives and rockets used in attacks against Iraqi civilians, police and U.S. forces.

Critics say the U.S. hasn't proved that the weapons come from Iran or that the Iranian government is complicit with trafficking. But the allegations have heightened tensions between Washington and Iran, raising the prospect of U.S. military action.

The crossing station here in eastern Wasit province, a moonscape desert with summer highs pushing 120 degrees and the dangerous litter of Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, illustrates the challenge of setting modern controls on an ancient frontier.

Although the United States' latest border problem is half a world away from Mexico and its illegal drug and immigrant traffic, the U.S. military hopes to incorporate some of the techniques used on the U.S.-Mexican border. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is lending border patrol and customs officers to help, and some former officers are working here under private contracts.

"This is a lot tougher than the Mexican border," said Army Col. Mark Mueller, who is in charge of U.S. forces advising Iraq's Department of Border Enforcement and the Iraqi army in this region. "There are leftover mines and munitions everywhere."

The crossing station straddles 90 miles of desert that stretch to the next crossing station. The main road is a two-lane asphalt strip that passes desolate enclaves of stone, block and earthen huts, where men and boys tend goats and sheep or sell plastic liter jugs of gasoline. The border itself is largely unmarked.

And as with the U.S. border with Mexico, there is not enough money, manpower or technology to seal the frontier.

The trouble goes deeper, a veteran of the U.S.-Mexican border patrol said recently. He's on loan from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help the U.S. military show Iraqis how to police their 900-mile border with Iran.

"I've tried to teach them about patrolling, and how to get out and check for footprints," said the agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk with reporters. "But they're just not that interested. They complain they don't have enough gas, they don't have spy planes. They just don't really want to spend their days driving around the desert."

In August, a passport scanning system was installed at this border station. The identities of travelers leaving and entering Iraq are checked against a watch list compiled in Baghdad. Photographs are taken and stored.

Most of the travelers are religious pilgrims in Shiite tour groups. As many as 2,000 people enter and exit Iraq here each day.

The people and their belongings are searched. Porters earn tips pushing carts piled with luggage as travelers make their way through several checkpoints.

Trucks must pass an X-ray machine built into a van. In the front seat, Iraqi workers monitor the contents of the shipment on a computer screen.

The system is old, however, and cannot fully penetrate many shipments. If workers spot something suspicious, they can order the truck to be unloaded. A shipment of illegal apples and some hashish have been recovered here, soldiers said. But no arms.

Most days, only two or three trucks are unloaded completely. U.S. military advisers say they're going to hire some of the porters to help do more searches. The planned tower to peer over the border wall will help, too. They said Iran has refused to agree to a neutral transfer site for the reloading of truck shipments.

U.S. military officials also plan to build an outpost here for 160 U.S. soldiers. A series of permanent roadblocks is planned to monitor highways crossing the province.

"We know [weapons are] coming across, but we haven't caught any," Brig. Gen. Edward C. Cardon said during a recent visit. He and other top Army officials say rockets and specialized bombs that can penetrate armored vehicles are coming from Iran.

Recently, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had secured a pledge in August from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to better patrol the border to help cut off the weapons. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said there were signs of a slight drop in the types of attacks associated with Shiite militants, although it was unclear whether it was linked to the Iranian pledge.

Sam Enriquez writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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