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.
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.
US forces in Baqubah had to adjust their rules of engagement to avoid killing Iraqi civilians engaged in battling insurgents, says brigade commander Col. Dana Pittard.
Controlling the traffic of fighters and weapons, as well as smuggled goods, is difficult due to the rugged terrain along the eastern border with Iran, and the presence of close-knit tribes that straddle the western border with Syria, US and Iraqi officials say. "On the Iranian border, you're talking about miles and miles of mountainous terrain. There's no way you can seal off that kind of a border," Secretary Wolfowitz said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters Sunday that Iran wants only "stability and security in Iraq." All Iraq's neighbors fear a spillover of the violence and chaos that followed Saddam's fall.
"We haven't done any action that may smell of an act of interference in Iraq's internal affairs from the very beginning, and won't do so in the future either," Mr. Asefi said.
Along the Syrian border, tribes such as the Shamar, Al Jubouri, and Al Fawzil migrate back and forth from Iraq. Many of the Iraqi border guards are tribal members with family on either side of the border, and often turn a blind eye to such smuggling, according to US and Iraqi officials. No computer database currently exists for tracking the passage of people and goods across the border, they say.
Meanwhile, border guards driving two-wheel-drive vehicles are often outrun by people crossing illegally in four-wheel drive Land Cruisers. Also, a long dirt berm built by US military engineers to delineate the Syrian border is easily transversed in many places by vehicles like Toyota pickup trucks, they say.
Monday, the New York Times reported that relatives of Saddam Hussein, working from Syria and Jordan, were smuggling weapons, fighters, and money into Iraq.
Still, progress is continuing in the training and equipping of an Iraqi border force, which currently stands at about 18,000 men. In Nineveh Province, 19 of 26 border forts are now fully manned with 1,300 guards equipped with radios, weapons, and vehicles for patrols. The guards now regularly stop and jail undocumented transients, including 90 in the past month, US officials say. "When we first got here, it was unheard of for the border police to intercept anyone. Now they do frequently," says Colonel Rounds. He is working to add at least 600 more guards from a mixture of tribes and ethnic groups to the border.
US officials have suggested ways to strengthen controls further, such as a fence along the Syrian border or "nonforgeable" identity cards for Iraqis.
Border controls are vital because once inside Iraq, foreign fighters are finding sanctuary in cities such as Tall Afar, a diverse city of 227,000 people that has become both a way station and base for attacks on US and Iraqi forces. "It has links to the [border crossing at] Rabiah and rat lines from Syria, so its traditionally a way station between Syria and Baghdad," says Captain Beaty.
Moreover, current Tall Afar leaders have "no real intent of denying their town to criminals, terrorists, or any type of bad guy" says Rounds, indicating that provincial officials are prepared to replace them if they fail to act.