The Iran-Iraq border in Maysan Province is straddled by more than 150 miles of desert and marshland that the US and Iraqi militaries allege to be a vital support corridor for Iraqi Shiite militants with ties to Iran.
US officers say that all roads from Shiite militant attacks in Baghdad lead back to here – even when there is no road.
"Everything that happens in Baghdad or Mosul by the sectarian Shiite groups is all tied to Iran – you have to cut the threads that tie them, and almost all of them start here," says Lt. Col. Scott Stephens, the intelligence officer of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
Securing the border area has become such a priority for the Iraqi government that in August it moved its 10th Army Division headquarters from Nasiriyah to Amarah, the capital of Maysan. The Iraqi Army and border enforcement police, along with the US, are establishing a joint security station on the edge of the marshes.
"We think there is training being done in Iran," says Lt. Col. Robert Menist of San Francisco, commander of the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment. Unemployed Iraqis from this area [of Iraq], he says, "are being trained on how to launch a rocket, how to launch an IED [improvised explosive device], and then sent to Amarah or further north to Baghdad or other places."
US and Iraqi officials are also trying to address the unemployment and poverty that makes smuggling one of the few options for people here.
US officials say the most lethal equipment used in attacks is being smuggled across the border: IEDs capable of sending molten slugs of metal through tank armor, trigger mechanisms for roadside bombs, and improvised rocket-assisted mortars.
Recent finds included improvised rocket launchers and parts to make hundreds more packed into banana crates from Iran.
The US says its claims are supported by the lot numbers and dates of manufacture on rockets and other seized weapons, information that points to Iran.
Iran denies that it is smuggling weapons or fighters into Iraq – though Iraqi officials disagree. Iraq recently arrested a man near Basra who, officials say, is a member of the Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guards that was originally formed to spread the Islamic revolution to neighboring countries. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the Quds Force was used to attempt to infiltrate Iraq and continued to participate in harassing operations against the country after the war was over.
US officials and analysts say Iranian infiltration and smuggling are part of a multilayered effort to extend Iran's influence in Iraq. Bilateral trade is now worth billions of dollars a year, and Iran is also allegedly funding some Iraqi political parties.
"Certainly it would shock me if the Quds force wasn't running all over Iraq," says Brian Fishman, a research fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point who has written extensively on Iranian strategy in Iraq. "One of the things we found is that the networks they use to channel weapons and money to Iraqi insurgents were the same networks they were using to funnel weapons and money to opponents of Saddam [Hussein] – those networks have been in place for a long time."
Iraqi security forces have made huge strides since the US disbanded them in 2003, but almost all the efforts to rebuild the Army have focused on maintaining internal security rather than defending against external threats from Iraq's five neighbors. "We are still a weak country, and until we can become stronger, everyone will try to interfere," says a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maysan, with its vast marshlands, has always been on the outer limits of Iraqi law. During Mr. Hussein's rule, it was home to Iraqi dissidents, and Iranian fighters crossed the border with ease. Hussein responded by draining the marshes. After the 2003 war, the British military-controlled area became a haven for competing Shiite militias that eventually took over the local government. Though the central government has since reasserted its presence, the province remains a caldron of competing political interests, many with ties to Iran.
Along this border are also oil wells that tap into reservoirs that run under both countries. A dispute over one of the wells came close to gunfire two years ago when Iranian border police prevented Iraqi engineers from approaching an Iraqi well on the frontier. The Iraqis now carefully monitor local Iranian activity – recently reporting a survey team near the wells.
The Iranian survey team is believed to have been involved in building a defensive berm, say US officials.
The relationship between the two neighbors is one of the most complex in the region. The countries both have Shiite majorities, but apart from spiritual matters Iraq's Arabs and Iran's Persians feel little affinity for each other, particularly after the bitter Iran-Iraq War.
"We don't want Iran to interfere," said a worshiper during Friday prayers in Sadr City recently when asked about Iranian influence in the coming elections. "We don't like Iran. Iran destroyed us."•