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Securing Iraq's Frontier, Step by Step

From a tiny shack where guards share a chair, controlling entry from Iran is a challenge. The coalition says it's making progress.

March 30, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

ZURBATIYA, Iraq — This country's 900-mile border with Iran is now officially closed at all but three remote posts. The mission of the lonely sentinels here: to prevent combatants and weapons from seeping into a nation that already has more than enough of both.

The reality is something quite different. As a long wave of trucks and visitors from Iran streamed past Friday, customs officer Hatim Sadoun had no metal detector to examine their cargo, and his counterpart in the 3-by-3-foot shack that served as passport control couldn't keep track of passports because he had no computer.

The border guards had no uniforms, no desert-terrain vehicles and nothing but light rifles to counter the machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades sneaked in by smugglers.

Sadoun and his men earn $45 a month and sleep on the dirt floor of a tent. There are no toilets and no drinking water. They sit in their single spindly chair, they said, "in shifts."

"If they keep me here in this dirt, under these conditions, how long should they expect that I will be faithful to them? Every day, my hatred for the American soldiers grows," said Sadoun, a longtime customs officer under Saddam Hussein's regime who was hired by the interim Iraqi government several months ago. "And if this situation persists, I can tell you, I will be the next one to fight against the Americans."

This is the front line of defense against whoever tries to cross the border from Iran. Border guards here say Afghans, Pakistanis, Chechens, Tajiks, Saudis and Syrians have tried to pass through along with the thousands of Iranian Shiite Muslim pilgrims traveling each day to Iraq's holy sites. They say they have been able to detain most -- but probably not all -- of those who lack appropriate travel documents.

"People who come from Iran and from all over Asia, even Europe, must pass through this horrible gate. And still the coalition forces have not offered this place even a single dollar," Sadoun said.

Two weeks ago, concerned that insurgents and suicide bombers could be slipping in from Iran, the U.S.-led coalition forces took action, closing 16 of the 19 border crossings. The coalition also established a $310-million border enhancement program aimed at providing 8,200 new guards and some computerized passport controls to monitor what they admit is an out-of-control frontier.

"We recognize these borders are porous, and for the security and safety of Iraqis, it needs to be an ever-more-controlled situation," said David Brannan, a former Ventura County sheriff's official who is director of security policy for the interim Iraqi government, under the direction of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. "We are moving toward a more controlled environment ... with the Iraqi people's help."

Current enforcement, he admitted, "ranges from very good to not so great."

L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, traveled to the Munthriya border post Monday with several local and national officials to inspect the new computer system that will provide officials with information about who is entering and leaving the country. Ten officers at Munthriya have been trained on the equipment so far.

"We are never going to have 100% security on the borders of Iraq -- we have to be realistic about that," Bremer said. But he added that the coalition was making progress by limiting the number of crossings.

Many Iraqis believe that Iran has supported sectarian attacks in Iraq to destabilize its neighbor and expand its own influence as political renewal is underway.

The border crackdown was prompted in part by an orchestrated series of bombings by unidentified assailants of Shiite shrines in Baghdad and the southern city of Karbala on March 2 that killed at least 181 people. The crackdown has substantially reduced the number of pilgrims entering from Iran.

"There was a saying from the caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, peace be upon him: 'I wish that I had a mountain of fire between us and Persia,' " said Hassan Ali, a 32-year-old shopkeeper in Baghdad, adding that the flood of Iranian worshipers had driven up prices and worsened the violence.

On the other hand, many have welcomed the influx of their fellow Shiites from Iran. Businesses are thriving in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, as well as in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad, site of one of the March 2 bombings. "The Iranians are the only ones who can afford to buy. The Iraqis don't have any money," said Fadhel Shawqir, a shopkeeper near the Kadhimiya shrine.

Still, he said, "I think controlling the border is a good move. Though it affects my work here, I think the security situation is more important than my work."

The U.S. has said it believes Iran is harboring members of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, although Iranian officials say they have arrested the suspects they know about.

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