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 , McClatchy Newspapers

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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."

For now, the crossing is open only to Iraqi-driven cargo trucks, which can enter Iran for a few hours at a time, long enough to load up on cement or bricks and then re-enter Iraq, passing through a series of inspections and X-ray machines. The Americans get suspicious when a truck returns empty; they wonder what the driver was up to on the other side of the border. The soldiers said that both sides used the Iraqi truck drivers as informants.

In January, Dorado said, U.S. troops noticed a surveillance drone hovering above their camp in broad daylight. The Americans checked with their command and were told that no U.S. drones were in the area. They realized it was an Iranian aircraft spying on their post, a rare provocation. The drone stayed overhead for a few minutes and then left.

"Of course we waved," Dorado said with a grin. "We gave them the one-finger salute."

Iranian supplied utilities

The Americans' security concerns aren't unfounded. Until 2007, the crossing at al Sheeb was wide open, with Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias in control of traffic, U.S. and Iraqi officers said. Smugglers carried on a bustling cross-border trade in everything from racing camels to explosives, and their bribes for safe passage went straight into militia coffers.

"The governor sent us here in 2006 to see the situation, and it wasn't good. The militias controlled everything," said Staff Brig. Gen. Waleed al Qaisi, the head of al Sheeb Port of Entry Directorate, which answers to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad.

Interviewed in his office in the half-finished official crossing of al Sheeb, Qaisi credits his U.S. advisers with being instrumental in helping the Iraqis regain control of the area after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's anti-militia campaign of 2008.

Although he still has doubts about whether Iran can be a good neighbor to Iraq, Qaisi said security seemed stable enough to shift focus to tourism possibilities at al Sheeb. Every week, cargo imports alone bring Iraq $95,000 in tariffs, or about $4.6 million a year. The money generated from the crossing will increase exponentially when the border opens to busloads of Iranian religious tourists headed for Iraq's legendary gold-domed Shiite shrines.

"This place is like an oil well that's just not open yet," Qaisi said.

Also not open yet: restaurants, hotels, public bathrooms and other basic services that will be needed to support so many travelers. On the security side, the Iraqis are still waiting for baggage scanners and other equipment to prevent weapons or drugs from being smuggled in.

Every time progress stalls at al Sheeb, Iran steps in to help, to the Americans' consternation. They're sure that the assistance will be repaid with lucrative contracts for Iranian investors and tourism companies, including a bus service that's operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"There's a lot of soft Iranian influence here through utilities. Now we have water and electricity that's Iranian, so you have another country providing utilities. What does that say about sovereignty?" Dorado said. "Yes, there will be economic benefit in the future, but at what expense?"

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