By Timothy Williams
May 9, 2010
SHULHA AL-ALGHWAT BORDER FORT, Iraq — In a barren stretch of desert in southeast , an American soldier recently waved to his Iranian counterpart pulling guard duty at a fort on the opposite side of the border.
An American soldier scans the iris of an Iranian entering Iraq at the Shalamcheh border crossing. The scans are done on all men of military age.
The Iranian appeared confused, but waved back before abruptly turning away. On another day, the American may have gotten a raised middle finger — or no response at all.
The American soldiers who help Iraqi border guards patrol the Iranian frontier in this hot, dusty no man’s land find themselves in a peculiar role.
They are stationed just a few hundred yards from an ostensible enemy toward whom they feel little animosity, in a place where the border itself is unclear, while undertaking what has turned out to be among the war’s most challenging assignments: training the Iraqi police to patrol their own porous frontiers before the American military withdrawal next year.
The United States government considers the soldiers’ mission, whatever its discomfiting aspects, to be so critical that the border troops will most likely be among the last American soldiers to depart before of United States forces from Iraq.
Since the 2003 American-led invasion, the American military has repeatedly accused of fueling Iraq’s continuing violence and instability; and it is in this portion of Iraq’s 910-mile frontier with Iran that American intelligence officials say explosives capable of penetrating armor, trigger devices for roadside bombs, 240-millimeter Katyusha-style rockets and sniper rifles, among other weaponry, have been smuggled.
The area near the border fort, in Iraq’s Basra Province, is also considered strategic because it is near Iraq’s seaports and its largest oil fields.
“Border security in Iraq is a fundamental capability required to achieve full sovereignty and international recognition,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, chief spokesman for the United States military in Iraq.
Because Iranians and Americans lack diplomatic ties, some of their closest actual encounters take place here along the Iraqi border, including the polluted 30-yard-wide canal at Shulha al-Alghwat — said to be mined during the Iran-Iraq war, and which only packs of wild dogs dare cross.
“If there’s a show of force, they would reciprocate,” said Master Sgt. James H. Allen, a member of the American border enforcement team. “If we brought a tank up to the border, they would bring a tank up to the border. But when we came here, we waved to them and we didn’t point our weapons.”
While there appears to be little tension, the Iranians do occasionally engage in cold-war-style gamesmanship, American and Iraqi soldiers said.
At the Shalamcheh port of entry, a few miles from the fort, Iranian workers recently erected a giant pole topped with a large Iranian flag that now towers over a much smaller Iraqi flag on the other side.
One day this month, an Iranian military helicopter circled overhead before venturing several hundred feet into Iraqi airspace.
“Look at that,” Lt. Col. William J. Girard, deputy team chief of the border transition team, said in a surprised voice. “They push it just to test things.” He paused, adding, “They know no one’s going to shoot at them.”
Stranger still, American soldiers at Shalamcheh, one of the frontier’s main crossing points for millions of Iranian pilgrims headed to Iraq’s Shiite shrines, as well as for the import of Iranian cars, construction materials and produce, have seen the Iranian border itself slowly advance into what they believed was Iraq.
Whereas American and Iraqi soldiers had treated the midpoint of the Shalamcheh Canal as the border, Iranian border guards during the past several months have gradually nudged the line westward by a few dozen yards.
“These guys keep creeping it up,” said Capt. Walter Lillegard, executive officer of the American transition team at Shalamcheh.
Captain Lillegard and other American soldiers say they do not take the Iranian actions seriously, and joke about the area’s gusting winds blowing their hats into Iran — wherever that may be — and setting off an international incident.
There is often greater tension, however, between Iranian and Iraqi soldiers, who faced off in bloody battles in the same area during the Iran-Iraq war. The area remains littered with land mines, deserted observation posts and the skeletons of military vehicles.
In December, a border incursion by Iranian soldiers into Iraq incited a standoff in Maysan Province, north of Basra Province. The Iranians, claiming an Iraqi oil well was actually in Iran, moved in tanks and artillery pieces. The dispute ended when the two countries agreed to hold talks, but that was not likely to be the last dispute, because fields containing millions of barrels of oil straddle the frontier.
Preparing Iraqis to patrol the frontier has proved difficult, say the American soldiers who work as trainers here, in part because Iraqi border troops have received less attention than the Iraqi Army or the Iraqi police.
Though border troops attend the same academy as the police, they are paid less and are poorly supplied, often running short on fuel, replacement parts and ammunition.
Though American soldiers say they are at the border only to advise and assist, they go on patrols without Iraqi forces and question the discipline and skills of the Iraqis.
United States troops are primarily concerned with smuggled weapons from Iran that are used against American forces. They acknowledge that there has not been a single instance in which a large cache has been interdicted, which has led to suspicions that smuggling is occurring farther north.
The lack of captured explosives has also given rise to a number of theories, among them that weapons are being smuggled via trained donkeys loaded down with armaments, or that a secret cross-border tunnel is being used.
“All the intelligence says ‘yes,’ there is arms smuggling here, but I’ve been here for 10 months and there hasn’t been a single time where either we or the Iraqis have found explosives coming across the border in any significant quantity,” said Colonel Girard.
He looked back at the Iraqi border, directly across the canal from an Iranian border fort, and then gestured to the vast, empty frontier.
“But it would be easy enough to get far enough away from all of this so you wouldn’t have to dig a tunnel,” he said.