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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.

"The Iranian government may sense that the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq presents an opportunity to expand" the activities of that country's elite paramilitary, known as the Quds Force, a senior U.S. diplomat wrote in an April 2009 cable that was among those disclosed recently by the Web site WikiLeaks.

The official, Patricia Butenis, raised alarm about "corruption at ports of entry, unwillingness of inspectors to do their jobs and poor leadership in the border force."

U.S. commanders say the force has improved in recent years but acknowledge that those concerns remain valid.

U.S. military officials have expanded their efforts along the Iranian border since 2007, when they detected pipelines of powerful munitions and Shiite militiamen entering Iraq, sometimes under the auspices of Iran's Quds Force.

The munitions smuggled across the border included long-range rockets used against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and parts for armor-piercing roadside bombs that became the top killer of U.S. troops in Iraq, according to the military.

Tehran has denied it aided Shiite militiamen. Shiite militias no longer control large swaths of Iraq, as they did during the peak of sectarian fighting in 2007.

But three highly trained militia groups continue to carry out attacks against U.S. forces. Two of the groups, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, are led by Iraqis who received training, funding and guidance from Tehran, according to U.S. military officials.

The Promised Day Brigade is the remaining armed wing of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement; Sadr disbanded his mainstream militia, the Mahdi Army, in 2008. Gibbs said the groups appear to be lying low for now.

"The word 'dormant' is probably a fair assessment," he said. "We still see violence from these groups. They keep us on our toes."

The main security force along the Iraqi border is the Directorate of Border Enforcement, a police agency with roughly 40,000 employees under the supervision of the Interior Ministry.

The force operates out of roughly 660 forts, many manned by a lone police officer. The Iraqi government intends to build dozens more over the next couple of years in order to have one every 3.1 miles.

Top Iraqi commanders have said that their lack of a regionally competitive air force and the country's fledgling border guard force will leave them highly vulnerable to external threats after U.S. forces pull out completely at the end of 2011.

"They have enough to do their job - barely,'' Gibbs said.

Capt. William Russo, who runs the small U.S. base near Shalamche, said the Iraqis' learning curve is steep. "They're pretty much where the Iraqi army was two years ago," he said.

Provocative moves

Border disputes between Iraq and Iran led to a full-on war from 1980 to 1988 after Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Iran by air and land. Remnants of that conflict remain ubiquitous along the border.

Iran built a museum and mosque on its side of the Shalamche crossing point, paying homage to Iranian soldiers killed in action.

The Iraqi side is littered with rusting tanks, rockets and other munitions. Once a week, Iranians detonate old munitions from that era in controlled blasts that thunder across the border.

Iranians have made a few provocative moves, such as the armed takeover of an Iraqi oil field last year, which led to a months-long diplomatic spat. But for the most part, there is little overt hostility along the border these days.

The Americans and the Iraqis stationed along the border exchange icy stares with their Iranian counterparts, who are sometimes no more than a few feet away. But there's almost never small talk - or any talk at all.

"I sometimes wave," Scherer said. "Very few wave back. We ignore them. They ignore us."

Lt. Col. Moyed Hamid al-Mauah, the director of security at the port of entry, said he dreads the day the Americans pack up and leave. "There is going to be a wide gap," he said, standing near a passport control office packed with Iranians. "It's going to be a wide-open gap, and it will have a palpable impact."

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