Iraq's border with Iran is an open door for thousands of Iranian Shiite pilgrims being smuggled across the frontier, say Iraqi police. And their numbers may also be swollen by Arab fighters.
Iraqi border police at the northeastern crossing point of Al Munthriya say that members of two leading Shiite parties in Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council are helping the illegal pilgrim trade, unwittingly aiding the passage of terrorists, spies, and saboteurs into the country.
Police say that Arab fighters from Afghanistan and members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda may also be exploiting clandestine routes through the arid hill country on the frontier, where pilgrims dodge scant border controls with support from members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Islamic Dawa.
Col. Nazzim Sherif Mohammed, commander of the Iraqi border police at Al Munthriya, says SCIRI and Dawa members have set up floating border posts in the desert and are providing guides to ferry pilgrims past official border posts to reach the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karabala.
Colonel Mohammed and his team say they doubt the parties' leaders are aware of the operations, but express frustration that groups linked to the country's emerging leadership could be inadvertently aiding terrorists.
"It is chaos. Anyone can come in and we can't control this. We can't tell who's a pilgrim and who's a terrorist," says Awat Dawoud, head of customs a Al Munthriya, where several hundred Kurds and former opposition members have joined the new coalition-backed border police force. "We captured some Iranians and brought them here. They told us that people from Dawa and Hakim's party [SCIRI] were taking $50" to bring people across the border, says Mohammed.
Adel Abdul Mehdi, a spokesman for SCIRI, says he has no knowledge of his party's involvement in the illegal pilgrim trade, which he notes had existed before the war when visits by Iranians were restricted.
But he admits that SCIRI members could be involved in bringing family members over from Iran. Most of the Iranians clandestinely crossing the border on foot or by truck are innocent pilgrims heading for the cities of Karbala and Najaf, to the south of Baghdad. The cities are home to the ornate shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Ali, descendents of the prophet Muhammad.
None of the pilgrims has a visa as Iraq has not yet resumed its foreign consular services. In Najaf and Karbala, throngs of Iranian pilgrims in Islamic green bandannas and prayer shawls worship at the shrines every day, wielding video cameras and posing happily in groups outside mosques.
In some Najaf restaurants, the clientele are almost exclusively Iranians wolfing down chicken and rice after a long, arduous journey. One pilgrim says proudly he walked six days to reach Najaf from Iran. Others says they drove across in cars. All decline to give details of the crossing. Some estimate that as many as 2,000 people cross the border every day.
Najaf hotel owner Farhan Shibli says his rooms are booked solid with Iranian guests. He welcomes the economic bonanza during such lean times, but voices misgivings about their presence in the country. "They come as pilgrims but some are smugglers and some can be considered spies," he says. "It's quite possible there are saboteurs among them."
He says some of his guests act suspiciously, changing clothes several times a day, dressing as Westerners or Arabs or even foreign journalists. "The coalition should do something about this problem," he says.
Paul Bremer, the top US civilian administrator, said on Saturday that the country's borders are difficult to guard, despite having 2,500 personnel watching them.
"We'd clearly like to have greater control over the borders. We agree there is a problem and we are addressing it," he told reporters.