The U.S. colonel had a simple question.
“Where are the signs you were supposed to get?” he asked the Iraqi border guard as they stood on a remote desert road believed to be a smuggling route from Iran.
The Iraqi officer pointed his flashlight at three signs that were intended to alert motorists to checkpoints. The signs were lying on a mound of sand.
“Why haven’t you put them up?” Col. Mark Mueller asked during a late-night inspection. “All you have to do is pound the stakes into the ground.”
But, the Iraqi explained, he didn’t have a shovel.
Such are the obstacles facing U.S. soldiers as they increase training of Iraqi border guards in this sparsely populated mountainous area southeast of Baghdad, believed to be a major route for weapons and fighters slipping into the country from Iran.
The former Soviet republic of Georgia sent 2,000 troops to help last month, but they haven’t yet left a major base in the area. Mueller and his troops are also getting a late start, basically trying to secure the thinly patrolled border from scratch after it was largely ignored during more than four years of war.
The area has attracted new U.S. attention as the military steps up allegations that Tehran is aiding Shiite extremists who have killed hundreds of American troops with powerful bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, believed to be brought in from Iran. Tensions between the two countries also have been rising over Iran’s nuclear program and the recent detentions of each others’ citizens.
Mueller, 48, from Yorktown, Va., is the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s border transition team at the heart of an intensified U.S. push to stop the smuggling. The strategy is similar to American efforts elsewhere in Iraq — build up the infrastructure and train the Iraqi forces to take over eventually.
The 900-mile border between the two countries, however, is laced with ancient smuggling routes and tribes who spent decades bringing in weapons to fight Saddam Hussein’s regime and are now believed to be making their living from Shiite militias. The problem is particularly stark along the 90-mile section in predominantly Shiite Wasit province, southeast of Baghdad.
Mueller acknowledges the virtual impossibility of securing such a border but says the U.S. forces can at least disrupt the flow of weapons into the capital.
The centerpiece is a plan to build a new base to house some 100 Georgian troops and as many as 66 Americans just four miles from the Iranian border.
Commanders said the facilities — complete with Internet access, electricity and housing — will enable the troops to spend every day at the border. That’s an improvement over making the dangerous, 50-mile commute in convoys from their regional hub near Kut, a violence-ridden city of 350,000.
Maj. Toby Logsdon, 34, of Litchfield, Ill., who is overseeing the $5 million project, said the aim is to have it operational by November.
But he conceded the deadline may be overly optimistic. He stood on a watchtower at an adjacent Iraqi base and pointed to a 150-by-300-yard patch of empty desert with no sign of development except for two working gravel pits in the distance.
The problem has roots in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the American military was focused on seizing Baghdad. The U.S. Marines received orders to send patrols to the area southeast of Baghdad — but not to the frontier itself, despite fears it was a tempting entry point for Islamic militants from Iran.
The Iranians took advantage by building a concrete wall separating the two countries at one of four border crossings. The wall blocked views of the trucks being searched and their cargoes loaded into Iraqi vehicles on their territory.
Iran denies it is stoking violence in Iraq, but there’s no doubt that Shiite-dominated Iran’s influence on trade and politics over the border has grown since the toppling of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. That has the U.S. nervous.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands U.S. troops south of the capital in a bid to block the flow of weapons and fighters into Baghdad, said last month that his troops were tracking about 50 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in their area — the first detailed allegation that Iranians have been training fighters within Iraq’s borders.
The charge against an Iranian military unit the White House is considering blacklisting as a terrorist group bolsters previous American claims of Iranian meddling in Iraq.
The top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, also said this month that he had solid evidence, including the explanations of captured Iranian agents, that Iran was behind lethal attacks in Iraq. Petraeus warned Congress that the U.S. already was fighting a “proxy war” with Iran.
For the U.S. soldiers in Wasit, that means bolstering security at the Zurbatiya border crossing — a wire-enclosed maze through which as many as 1,200 Iranians a day can enter Iraq legally, most pilgrims headed to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. The number of Iraqis traveling to and from Iran is not limited, but they are screened and searched.
The Americans have made progress since arriving on June 20, installing a computer system for their Iraqi counterparts to track wanted suspects, implementing a biometrics system to take iris scans and fingerprints, and building metal hangers and awnings to shield pilgrims as temperatures soar above 120 degrees.
They’re providing X-ray machines for luggage, hiring porters to unload trucks and building a watchtower to allow better oversight of trucks being searched and loaded on the Iranian side. The Iranians already have one, although Mueller insists his will be taller.
The military also plans to erect six forts by Nov. 1 manned by the Georgian troops to augment the 17-22 Iraqi checkpoints — most nothing more than concrete bunkers that lack electricity and water — along the porous, unmarked border. Mueller said the goal is to improve their ability to chase smugglers who use backroads.
Currently U.S. teams spend shifts of two or three days patrolling the border entry point, but they have to set up cots outside to spend the night and risk running low on fuel and water. The new base will solve that.
“Right now it’s very hard for us to do our job because we’ve got to drive an hour, 15 minutes and sometimes it’s about 2 1/2 hours up north, especially during the rainy season,” Mueller said during a recent interview at his office on the Forward Operating Base Delta, a former Iraqi air base that saw heavy use during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
“We spend a lot of time drinking chai and exchanging pleasantries rather than working. So if we’re there every day — after a while we’re just part of the team,” he said.
On two recent days, teams of some two dozen U.S. soldiers stationed themselves at the entry point and search areas, standing alongside their Iraqi colleagues and donning gloves to sift through suitcases and plastic Barbie bags piled onto stone counters.
Iraqis, Iranians and even some Pakistanis, including men carrying crying toddlers and women shrouded in black, crowded around the counter. They were accompanied by porters, who make a healthy living carting luggage across the compound as the travelers have to walk through to tour buses or other transportation waiting on either side.
Others stood in line to undergo questioning and biometrics in air-conditioned trailers serving as passport control.
Soldiers in the cargo area X-rayed the content of trucks and singled out vehicles to be searched more thoroughly. Some 350-400 trucks are processed daily, Mueller said.
The troops were on alert for three militants believed to be trying to get to Iran for training, but the only contraband found was a batch of bad apples that failed to meet Iraq’s food standards.
The apples were shoveled into barrels and burned.
The U.S. colonel had a simple question.