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.
U.S. officials began crafting a border security strategy in late 2005 to stem the flow of weapons and would-be suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria.
But since last year, Iraq's 900-mile border with Iran has become the top priority: U.S. officials have accused Iran of arming, training and financing militias in Iraq, a charge Iranian officials have consistently denied.
Though the borders remain porous, U.S. officials say the new measures have contributed to the sharp reduction of violence in Iraq this year by forcing fighters and smugglers to use more remote and dangerous routes.
"It's becoming more and more effective as the database is built," Oluic said. "Monthly, it's becoming more and more difficult to use the ports of entry" for weapons and fighters.
The outposts along the border are among the most isolated and perilous in Iraq for U.S. officials.
In March, a man wearing an explosives vest targeted the biometrics intake center at the Rabiyah post on the border with Syria. He killed one interpreter and wounded two U.S. soldiers, two customs officials and two civilians employed by the U.S. military.
After passing the American screening centers, travelers present their passports to Iraqi immigration officials who scan the entrant's passport and fingerprints.
Iraqi officials do not have access to the U.S. database, triggering complaints. American officials say they recognize the need to share more information but cite classification rules and other concerns over potential misuse of the data for not doing so.
Ground sensors outside ports of entry, similar to ones installed along the southwest border in the United States, are linked to cameras that alert intelligence officers in the United States to suspicious movements. The officers then report the activity to U.S. soldiers near the border.
"We know that we're disrupting it," said Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, a commander of the division that oversees operations south of Baghdad, referring to the passage of weapons and fighters. "I'm not going to tell you we've shut it down. But we have a much better understanding of the smuggling networks than we did six months ago."
Some militia leaders who fled Iraq to avoid being killed or captured during operations last year and early this year have begun to return to form smaller, more proficient cells of fighters, U.S. officials say. Officials suspect these cells are carrying out attacks against politicians amid intense campaigning among rival Shiite parties for provincial elections expected to take place next year.
U.S. military officials say they hope to implement some of the screening mechanisms at Iraq's commercial airports. This month, an Iranian airline launched three weekly flights between Tehran and Baghdad.
The U.S. officials at the border outposts also train Iraqi border officials. Iraq recently earmarked more than $400 million for its three-year plan to enhance border security, which includes building 712 forts along the border.
"There's better regulation and less corruption," said Maj. Raymond Smith, one of the team leaders at Zurbatiyah.
The beefed-up border posts and training of Iraqi officials have reduced corruption at the ports of entry. In Zurbatiyah, for example, the government last year collected $6.9 million in tariffs and taxes, up from $1.8 million in 2006 and $800,000 in 2005.
The Directorate of Border Enforcement, which has roughly 38,000 employees, is crippled by staffing problems and chronic fuel shortages that ground border patrol agents for weeks at a time and leave stations in the dark, unable to power generators. U.S. officials say that the Interior Ministry's authorization process for shipping fuel to border posts is tedious and unreliable and that some of the fuel is sold on the black market.
"It's a huge problem" for Iraqi border patrol agents, Oluic said. "These are austere environments. You can't do a foot patrol for more than two kilometers. They can't go out and do their jobs."
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.