Anxiety along Iraq's border with Iran

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 9:54 PM

IN SHALAMCHE, IRAQ Along this dusty border crossing that links Iraq with erstwhile enemy Iran, there is growing evidence that it is Iran that holds the upper hand at the twilight of the U.S. military mission here.

Weapons and Shiite militiamen continue to cross into Iraq along the poorly secured border, part of what U.S. military officials describe as an Iranian effort to keep proxy fighting forces in Iraq.

The flow faces little challenge from a poorly trained, ill-equipped Iraqi border police force that might be the weakest link in the security apparatus that the U.S. military intends to leave behind.

Supply shortfalls have hampered the Iraqi border force, which often has to make do with limited fuel for vehicles and generators. Spare parts for broken vehicles can take weeks or months to reach border outposts. Some of the guards' mismatched uniforms are so old that they still bear the flag of the previous regime.

Iranian exports to Iraq have soared in recent years, making Iraq dependent on everything from Iranian produce to reconstruction supplies. The stream of subsidized goods has kept Iraq from building up its agriculture sector, which has been crippled by war and drought.

Throngs of Iranians, most of them pilgrims on religious excursions, pour into Basra province every day.

But among the legions of Iranian cargo trucks that enter Iraq daily from border points like this one, only a handful are inspected by the Iraqi border force, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, because Iraq's cargo screening devices are broken.

"You tell me what's under that load," Lt. Col. Dale Scherer, one of the American trainers in Shalamche, about 25 miles east of the port city of Basra, said recently, standing a few feet from the Iranian border as a truck packed with cucumbers drove past a broken cargo scanner.

"Virtually all around Iraq, they don't work," Scherer said. "It's a big deal security-wise. There is no other way to check the loads coming in."

U.S. commanders say the electronic screening equipment has fallen victim to power surges from a supply controlled by Iran. "You can turn the power off whenever you want to if you want to slip something across the border," said Gen. Ricky Gibbs, a top U.S. commander in southern Iraq.

"Right now, there are no problems," Iraqi border policeman Khadum Khalaf said on a recent morning as the sun rose over one of the hundreds of sparse border forts that dot this frontier. "But when the Americans leave, it will be miserable for all of Iraq. Not just the border. Iraq is like a big cake that everyone wants to eat, and the Iraqi army is not strong enough."

'Opportunity to expand'

U.S. officials have long worried that Iran shares that view.

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