U.S. Takes Battle Against Iraq Violence to Border

Todd Filler, a U.S. contractor, scans the retina of a man crossing into Iraq from Iran at the Zurbatiyah border post, located directly west of Baghdad.
Todd Filler, a U.S. contractor, scans the retina of a man crossing into Iraq from Iran at the Zurbatiyah border post, located directly west of Baghdad. (By Ernesto Londoño -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008

ZURBATIYAH, Iraq -- For thousands of Iranians, traveling to Iraq through this bustling, dusty gateway now requires stopping at small white trailers where U.S. officials take their photos and record scans of their irises and fingerprints.

U.S. officials collect the biometric information of virtually all "military-age men" in an effort to stop the entry of weapons and fighters. Since officials began gathering biometric data at border posts this spring, more than 150,000 individuals have been scanned and photographed.

Their records have been added to a burgeoning database that also includes biometric information about Iraqis and foreigners employed on American bases, as well as Iraqis who are detained or interrogated by U.S. forces. American officials use the data to identify people on wanted lists, search for suspicious travel patterns, and look for matches in a separate database that includes fingerprints collected after bombings and other attacks.

"It's a bad situation," said Hamid Alavi, 27, an Iranian pilgrim, voicing exasperation about the increased U.S. military presence at Zurbatiyah. "The American people -- do they like this behavior? It's sad."

Twenty-eight teams of U.S. military officials, customs experts and former U.S. Border Patrol agents working as private contractors have been sent to small outposts along Iraq's 2,270-mile border, where U.S. officials also employ ground sensors linked to satellite cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles.

U.S. officials say the dragnet has led to the detention of hundreds of "adversaries" and yielded a clearer understanding of smuggling networks. Officials plan to double the number of border teams by the end of the year.

"Internal security is getting much better," said Lt. Col. Steven Oluic, who serves as a liaison between the teams and top U.S. commanders in Baghdad. "Now what needs to happen is we need to help them shut down the borders to malign influence. Borders are now the hot issue."

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report issued this month faulted U.S. military officials for not having a standard for the types of data collected by troops in combat zones and not having better mechanisms to share the data with other federal agencies. U.S. military officials in Iraq and Afghanistan have collected biometric information from more than 1.5 million people.

The U.S. program is largely separate from Iraq's halting efforts to control its borders. The government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to build up border and customs agencies, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently took direct control of the customs bureaucracy because of corruption concerns.

The Zurbatiyah port of entry, east of Baghdad, is one of Iraq's busiest. Iranian trucks, which are not allowed to cross into Iraq, line up early in the morning at a parking lot on the Iranian side, where cargo is loaded onto Iraqi vehicles.

Hundreds of Iranian tourists, mainly pilgrims bound for the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, are dropped off on the Iranian side each day. Older travelers are carried on wobbly metal carts loaded with bulging suitcases.

Military-age men must pass through a trailer, where U.S. soldiers sit behind laptop computers emblazoned with a bat symbol, a reference to the acronym of the system: Biometrics Automated Toolset. The scanning and photography take a few minutes. In some cases, officials use a second scanner with facial recognition software.

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