By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006
OM AL-KABARI, Iraq -- In this once-thriving smuggling village on Iraq's border with Syria, the last donkeys are dying.
Mothers complain they have no shoes for their children and only soup to feed them. Men sit idly playing checkers and bemoaning the night when American scout helicopters swooped overhead, spelling the end of their livelihoods.
"We could get around everything, but not the helicopters," sighed Mahmood Ahmed, 29, who, along with most of the men in this village of 400 people, admitted he was a smuggler. "We're having nightmares about them."
With their income shriveling, the smugglers could no longer afford food for the hundreds of donkeys they used to haul 30-gallon drums of benzene, cartons of cigarettes and other goods into Syria.
"There is no grass, no money to feed them. So they all died," said Yassin Ali, 39, pointing to a mangy, skeletal white donkey lying listless nearby.
The dramatic downturn in the fortunes of villages along the border is one sign that a surge of American and Iraqi troops into the region in recent months has sharply curtailed illegal traffic over the frontier, U.S. and Iraqi officials and local residents say.
U.S. commanders last year launched a plan to gain better control of Iraq's borders to try to stop the flow of outside fighters, weapons and cash to the Iraqi insurgency. Several thousand additional U.S. and Iraqi troops have been sent into regions near Syria since last summer to bolster a growing contingent of Iraqi border guards. Scores of border forts have been built or refurbished and manned, and there are plans to erect a double chain-link fence along the border during the coming year, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
"It's much more than just a line in the sand right now," said Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly of Sacramento, Calif., commander of a U.S. cavalry squadron that oversees about 115 miles of Iraq's northwestern border with Syria, from the Tigris River to the Euphrates. "It's not like a vast open border, not at all. It's a very difficult border to cross."
Syrian border police are also aggressively patrolling their side, Reilly said, in contrast with official statements in Washington accusing Damascus of lax control. "The Syrians are actually doing their job. They are more violent than we are. If they see someone, they will open up shooting," Reilly said as he walked along a dirt berm in view of Syrian guards several weeks ago. Iraqi officers said Syrian guards had recently shot at Iraqi border police, leading to skirmishes.
Controls have been tightened at official border-crossing points. At the town of Rabiyah, a 10-wheel cargo truck rumbled past a newly constructed Iraqi customs station toward a Syrian checkpoint marked by a huge portrait of Syria's late president Hafez Assad. A few months ago, the Iraqi entry point here was in disarray, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Inbound and outbound traffic were mixed together. Iraqi guards had only five rifles, lacked ammunition and "had no idea what passport was fake and what was real," said Col. Fadel Shaaban Abas, commander of Iraqi customs police at Rabiyah.
"It was complete chaos. You had no idea who was coming and going," said Reilly, commander of 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which finishes a year-long tour in Iraq this month. A suicide car bombing in late May closed the entry point for two weeks.
Today, up to 5,000 people, mostly on foot, and about 300 vehicles cross the border daily through divided lanes. Customs revenue has almost tripled. The 120 Iraqi customs police are armed with AK-47 assault rifles or pistols and are backed up by a new, 260-man police battalion, which arrived in December, Abas said. A U.S. customs team recently trained the police officers to spot false passports, and now they find three or four a day, said Staff Sgt. Robert Lowery of Naples, Fla.
Fighters from abroad -- both Iraqis who had left the country and some foreigners -- still manage to get into Iraq, but not simply by sneaking over the border, U.S. officials assert.
"The myth is that foreign fighters are crossing a porous border," said Maj. Chris Kennedy, executive officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry. Instead, many of the incoming fighters can simply fly into Baghdad, using valid Iraqi passports made from "boxes and boxes" of blank passports shipped out of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule, Kennedy and other U.S. officers said. Iraqis are now posted at the border to listen for foreign accents, although many insurgents entering are Iraqis themselves, he said.
But while U.S. officers are less worried about foreign fighters trying to sift through border villages, they express concern that the severe economic impact of shutting down smuggling routes could create a new breeding ground for insurgents in Iraq.
"The biggest fear is you have a financier who comes through and builds a cell" in an impoverished border village, said Reilly, who estimated that 100,000 people live in primarily Sunni Arab villages along the stretch of border he oversees.
In Om al-Kabari, Mahmood Ali, a father of six, said he considered smuggling to be one of the few legitimate alternatives for earning a living in the village, where drought has curtailed farming in recent years.
"It's a more honorable job than stealing or being an Ali Baba, or insurgent -- you're risking your life . . . to put food on the table," said Ali, squatting in a circle sharing tea with the other village men.
Smuggling, while always a local occupation, accelerated with the economic embargo imposed on Iraq in the 1990s and then skyrocketed when border controls collapsed after the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein in April 2003, villagers said. The smugglers would take out loans at the local sheep market or from goods distributors in the city of Mosul, 100 miles to the east. They would use the money to buy benzene or cartons of cigarettes, load up their donkeys and set out for the border at night in teams of three or four.
It was a risky trade, said Ahmed, who was once caught by Syrian forces, beaten and detained for nine months in a crowded Syrian jail. He said five men from the village had been killed by the Syrian army since 2003. "The Syrians, most of the time, don't detain you, they just shoot you," he said. "There are no warning shots at all."
Still, it was the most lucrative job around. If they successfully met up with buyers in Syria, the teams of smugglers could each make about $27 a month, an average income for Iraqis in the region.
But then last spring, the arrival of U.S. Kiowa scout helicopters, backed up by American and Iraqi ground forces, halted the smuggling spree.
"It was my black day," recalled Yassin Ali, the first of the villagers to be caught by U.S. forces. "All of a sudden we were moving one night and we didn't hear anything, and they turned on the lights." The smugglers froze, but after a minute, when the lights went off again, they tried to flee, thinking the helicopter had gone and the crew could no longer see them. "But it still saw us, even from afar, and they were right back on us," Ali said. "Then the Humvees came up."
Next to the village, an Iraqi border fort is now manned by 24 Iraqi police officers who live there and work in shifts. It is one of 56 forts with 2,700 border police now operating along the northwestern border in conjunction with U.S. and Iraqi troops. Equipped with new jeeps, pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, binoculars and night vision goggles, the police patrol the border around the clock.
"Before, there was no tracking . . . whatsoever, and they could go in day and night," said 1st Lt. Abrahim Assaf Khuder, a police company commander. Now Khuder estimates smuggling has dropped 95 percent, with fewer than three to five interdictions a week. "What really decreased the numbers is the choppers," he said.
The smugglers admit they still occasionally try to make it across the border, adding they are happy the U.S. helicopters don't shoot them. Unlike in the past, they say, they never carry weapons.
"What can we do? We have no jobs, no benzene, no clothes for our families, and the choppers are on our heads all the time. We can't even buy shoes for our kids," Mahmood Ali said, pointing to the bare feet of his 6-year-old son. Monthly rations of grain from the government -- about 20 pounds a person -- only come every four months, he said.
"These towns are in dire need," said Reilly, who has attempted to alleviate the damage from the smuggling crackdown by shipping pallets of food and water to the villages and planning two well-building projects. Reilly has also proposed creating a free-trade zone along the border. In a recent meeting with villagers, they pressed him for permission to cross one day a week. "Syria has to approve it," Reilly told them.
" Inshalla h ," they replied. God willing.