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Iraq-Iran border post: From 'Checkpoint Charlie' to tourist gate?

At a remote Iraq-Iran border post, US forces watch Iranians watch them. Iran's spy drones circle overhead. But there are plans to make this border crossing a new gateway for tourism between the two countries.

By Hannah AllamMcClatchy Newspapers / April 27, 2010

An Iraq-Iran border post at Shalamcha. Another border post like this one, called Joint Security Station Wahab, may have a future as a tourist crossing.

Nabil al-Jurani/AP

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Joint Security Station Wahab, Iraq

This windswept U.S. garrison on Iraq's border with Iran has no running water and sporadic mail service, and it's so easily overlooked that the military accidentally canceled its contract for portable toilets last month, forcing the 60 soldiers who live here to resort to disposable waste bags for a while.

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Yet Joint Security Station Wahab, which service members recently voted "the most austere base" in southern Iraq, is expected to remain after most of the American super bases in the country close. That's because the soldiers here are on the front line of the U.S. military's efforts to track and counter Iranian influence, a mission that's going to get harder as the area's al Sheeb border station opens to thousands of Iranian tourists in the next few months.

As the U.S. military dismantles much larger bases elsewhere, the ones with fast-food outlets, beauty salons and Eastern European masseuses, commanders plan to keep the small border contingent in place as long as possible. Its job: to train Iraqi forces to protect al Sheeb and its environs, a 25-mile land mine-dotted stretch with deserts to the north and marshes to the south.

Where Iraqi officials envision a bustling tourist hub that will bring jobs and investment, U.S. officials see another potential foothold for Iran, which already provides electricity and water to the Iraqi border station. Once the last mines are cleared, a tedious and dangerous undertaking, al Sheeb crossing will open for tourists. The Americans aren't sure that the Iraqi infrastructure or border force is ready for such a massive influx and the accompanying security concerns.

"Really, the U.S. can counterbalance Iranian influence, whether soft or malign, only up to a certain point," said Army Maj. Daniel Dorado, 34, of Mililani, Hawaii, a fluent Arabic speaker who heads the U.S. transition team that advises Iraqi border forces at JSS Wahab. "But I don't see how we can counterbalance people coming through. We can't make more Iraqis."

Spy vs. Spy

The American soldiers at JSS Wahab are attached to the 4th Brigade of the Army's 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. They don't have to deal with the rocket fire and roadside bombs that target other outposts. Instead, they're locked in what one soldier described as a "spy vs. spy" scenario with Iran's security forces, which are so close that the American and Iranian units regularly spot one another on patrols.

"While they're very close, it's a Checkpoint Charlie situation," Capt. Courtney Dean, 28, of Bloomington, Ind., said of the Iranian forces. "I stand there with my binoculars looking at the Iranians, and they look back with the thousand-yard stare."

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