Iraq battles its leaking borders
Iraq's prime minister called on Syria and Iran Sunday to help check flow of weapons, fighters.
TALL AFAR, IRAQ
One recent moonless night, a company of US infantrymen rolled out of an austere camp and deep into uncharted terrain in the Iraqi desert. Their mission: a 160-mile assault on a suspected terrorist training camp near Iraq's border with Syria.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Surveillance had spotted some 20 men in black tunics at the small encampment. Among them was a "high value target," sought for smuggling arms and foreign fighters from Syria. Yet the mission, which detained 12 people, missed its top man, who apparently disappeared among the nomadic tribes here that are as shifting as the desert sands. "They have a very sophisticated tribal communications network throughout Iraq," says Capt. Eric Beaty, whose company led the assault in the early hours of June 27.
The incident underscores the challenges facing US and Iraqi forces as they labor to curb the influx since last year of 1,000 to 3,000 foreign militants tied to a growing string of terrorist strikes.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is appealing to Syria and Iran to help check the illegal trafficking of weapons, money, and fighters into Iraq. Iraq intends to enter negotiations soon with both countries on the border problem, Mr. Allawi told reporters Sunday.
Senior Iraqi and American officials are quick to blame Syria and Iran for tacitly supporting car bombings and other attacks that have killed and wounded hundreds of people in the past month, including scores of Iraqi security forces and civilians. On Monday, Iraqi officials said they arrested two Iranians attempting to detonate a car bomb in eastern Baghdad.
"Now Iraq is open for all terrorists," admits Osama Kashmoula, governor of Iraq's northern Nineveh Province, which shares a 155-mile boundary with Syria. "We've arrested Iranians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Algerians - I don't know the number," he said.
US commanders agree. "I don't think there's any difficulty pushing weapons or fighters across the border," says Army Col. Michael Rounds, who commands the main US ground unit in northern Iraq, a 5,000-strong Stryker brigade task force.
In May, Washington imposed $200 million worth of economic sanctions on Syria, charging that the country supported terrorism and was undermining US efforts to stabilize Iraq, in part by failing to curb the transit of terrorists across its borders.
"Neither of those countries [Syria and Iran] want to see success in Iraq. They're in many ways terrified of it," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "The Iranians and Syrians could do a lot to control the borders if ... we compelled them to think it was in their interest," he told a congressional hearing two weeks ago.
The high-level charges by Iraqi and US officials of terrorist complicity by Syria and Iran is a message intended in part to rally the Iraqi public against foreign fighters, who coalition officials acknowledge could not operate here without homegrown support. They contend that recent attacks instigated in part by foreign fighters on Iraqi officials and security forces in Mosul, Baqubah, and other major cities have backfired.
In Baqubah in late June, for example, Iraqi citizens spontaneously grabbed weapons and took to the streets to fight outside insurgents, both foreign and from elsewhere in Iraq, US military officials say. "People of Baqubah realize these are foreigners - Syrians, Egyptians, and Afghanis," says Maj. Kreg Schnell, the intelligence officer for the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade in Baqubah.