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Iraqi Force Patrols in the East

September 28, 2003|From Associated Press

MUNTHERIA BORDER CROSSING, Iraq — The U.S. Army for the first time Saturday gave Iraq's provisional government responsibility for patrolling a stretch of the country's borders -- a sensitive 210-mile region of forbidding desert frontier between Iraq and Iran.

The transfer comes as the U.S.-led coalition faces pressure to give Iraqis more control over their affairs. And security here is crucial: The border is a popular illegal crossing point for Iranian pilgrims en route to Shiite holy sites, raising fears that Al Qaeda or other terrorists could enter.

Calling it an "important day for the Iraqi people," Col. Michael Moody, commander of the 4th Infantry's 4th Brigade, formally handed patrol duties in the area to Iraqi Col. Nazim Shareef Mohammed.

Mohammed's 1,178-strong force is made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turks.

"We are unique," said Mohammed, a Kurd. "This is an important day for us because we officially take over this highly sensitive border."

U.S. soldiers started training the Iraqi border forces in May, in sessions that touched on human rights of detainees as well as searches for Islamic militants or suicide bombers trying to blend in with pilgrims.

With no diplomatic relations between Iran and Iraq, many Iranians try to cross at a point about 75 miles east of Baghdad on their way to Najaf and Karbala -- the most sacred cities for Shiites after Mecca and Medina.

Lt. Col. Reggie Allen, commanding officer of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry, said his forces, equipped with armored vehicles and scout helicopters, have stopped more than 14,000 illegal pilgrims since the end of August.

Saturday's switch was part of an American drive to ease the burden on thinly stretched U.S. soldiers. The American occupation forces now have only an advisory role there.

The frontier includes a mountainous region, and temperatures often surpass 120 degrees.

It runs from the edges of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq to a point just southeast of Baghdad.

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