Troops prepare to plug `new weak link' on border
By Kirsten Scharnberg Tribune correspondent
Chicago Tribune

The smuggling route couldn't be more obvious.

The well-worn footpath snakes across the Syrian desert, over a small mound of dirt that serves as the feeble barrier between Iraq and its western neighbor and juts through a wire fence that long ago was slashed to leave a 3-foot gap.

The trail then meanders into the Iraqi countryside, toward sun-baked villages that U.S. authorities say are hideouts for Islamic extremists, former members of Saddam Hussein's regime and foreign fighters.

Army Capt. Eric Fortin shook his head as he surveyed the terrain.

"You need to understand something," Fortin told the dozen Iraqi Border Patrol soldiers gathered around him. "The U.S. forces are currently conducting major operations just south of here, in al-Anbar province, where the bulk of the foreign fighters and weapons have been coming into Iraq.

"In the coming weeks, that border will effectively be sealed off. The insurgents are going to be looking for the new weak link in the Iraqi-Syrian border, and we are very afraid it is going to be here," he said.

The Iraqis smiled and nodded at the sunburned American officer. Again and again they promised that inshallah--God willing--the border would become a no-go zone for terrorists.

But the mission here is expected to be so complicated that even the most inspired of pep talks and military plans could fail to keep out the people, guns and money that fuel the insurgency. Gen. John Abizaid, the American commander for the Middle East, acknowledged to Congress last week that "there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago."

The challenges here, on this nearly 180-mile stretch of border in Iraq's Nineveh province, are daunting.

Smuggling has been a vital industry in the region for centuries, and the people are very good at it. They smuggle sheep and cigarettes, fuel and vegetables.

Losing friends, creating foes

But stopping all smuggling in the region could alienate the local populace whose economy is greatly dependent on bringing illegal goods across the border. Iraqis who are sympathetic to U.S. forces--or, at minimum, neutral--could be tipped in the opposite direction.

All of this falls at a time when U.S. forces have been told that their fundamental mission is to support Iraqi security forces. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops swept through the city of Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, The Associated Press reported, in the third major campaign in Anbar in recent weeks. Little resistance was reported.

The emphasis for American troops in such operations is on making sure the Iraqi forces bear the greater part of the load. For example, Fortin's soldiers are not supposed to spearhead their mission along the border but to encourage and train the Iraqis to do it on their own.

"We cannot do this for you," Fortin told the border patrol soldiers. "This mission is yours."

The Iraqis have many obstacles to overcome. Though most smuggling happens after dark, the Iraqi soldiers do not have night-vision goggles. Their forts are so poorly constructed and so widely spaced that they cannot watch most of the border. Each of the forts, spaced about 1 to 4 miles apart, has only one large automatic weapon, and most of these are not reliable.

"That border is the equivalent of the New Jersey Turnpike for insurgents," said Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which assumed control of the region about a month ago. "They come up, they pay their bribe or even just walk through without that, and they go off to do what they do."

The 3rd Armored Cavalry was shifted to the region from Baghdad when it became apparent that the U.S. Marines' crackdown on insurgent strongholds in Anbar could have a ripple effect in Nineveh, the province directly north of Anbar.

When McMaster's soldiers arrived here in May, one key city, Tal Afar, already held an estimated 500 insurgents--including an entire tribe said to be closely tied to militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to local leaders.

The province's Iraq-Syrian border security is largely a shambles.

At its one authorized border crossing, at the town of Rabia, U.S. soldiers arrived in May to find that inspection agents were independently hiring untrained people to supervise the border operation while the employees slept.

And virtually anyone who was caught bringing illegal goods into Iraq--either at the official crossing at Rabia or along any of the illegal footpaths--could simply pay a bribe and continue on, said U.S. officials now charged with supervising the checkpoint.

"Why would they willingly change to doing things on the up and up when they could go on doing things the way they have for centuries and get money out of it?" asked Hector Noriega, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who recently was brought in to train Iraqi border workers.

On a recent morning, Noriega was skeptical about the possibility of ever sealing the Syrian border.

Some positive steps had been made, such as bringing in technology that remotely X-rays trucks approaching the Rabia checkpoint. But that does not dent the other problems, such as foreign fighters who reportedly use false passports to cross into Iraq.

"Look at this place," Noriega said, motioning to the chaotic checkpoint, where people milled over the border freely. "We haven't even begun to deal with teaching them things as advanced as false documents."

Meanwhile, unemployment is staggering. U.S. troops say well over half the population is without work, a situation that creates other problems.

"It's all about the Benjamin here," said Capt. Craig Olson, the regiment's top intelligence officer, using the slang expression for $100 bills.

`A smuggling economy'

"This is a smuggling economy. If you've always made your money sneaking goods across the border and suddenly someone is willing to pay you $150 to let a foreign fighter hide overnight in your house or to hide some weapons in a wagon full of vegetables, I don't think many people are going to refuse," Olson said.

Troops acknowledge that a crackdown on what essentially is the region's No. 1 industry is bound to infuriate those who depend on smuggling.

"I don't want to be the guy who disrupts or shuts down the entire economies of entire villages of already impoverished people," said Capt. Jason Whitten, whose engineering company is in charge of the Rabia border checkpoint. "But how do we know that the money made smuggling cigarettes doesn't eventually go to supporting the insurgency?

"And maybe even more than that is the idea that the kind of country we are trying to help the Iraqis create is not supposed to be a place that is built around bribing border agents and breaking laws and dismissing the rules of the elected government," Whitten said.

Soldiers in Nineveh also worry that if their mission is not synchronized with the Marines in Anbar, it could create a situation in which one region cracks down and the smuggling simply moves to another area. Then a few months later, the situation repeats itself.

"It's been described as the Pillsbury Doughboy phenomenon," Olson said. "You poke hard in one place and cause a ripple effect somewhere else."