Wall Street Journal: The Pentagon is preparing to build its first base for U.S. forces near the Iraqi-Iranian border, in a major new effort to curb the flow of advanced Iranian weaponry to Shiite militants across Iraq. The Wall Street Journal
By YOCHI J. DREAZEN and GREG JAFFE
September 10, 2007; Page A3
BARDA, Iraq — The Pentagon is preparing to build its first base for U.S. forces near the Iraqi-Iranian border, in a major new effort to curb the flow of advanced Iranian weaponry to Shiite militants across Iraq.
The push also includes construction of fortified checkpoints on the major highways leading from the Iranian border to Baghdad and the installation of X-ray machines and explosives-detecting sensors at the only formal border crossing between Iran and Iraq.
The measures come as the U.S. high command in Iraq has begun to recalibrate the overall American mission in the country to focus less on the Sunni Muslim radicals who were long the primary U.S. targets of pacifying the country and more on the Shiite Muslim militias suspected of maintaining close ties to Iran.
When Gen. David Petraeus gives Congress his long-awaited Iraq progress report today, aides say the top U.S. commander in Iraq will argue that the “surge” of additional American combat troops into Iraq has helped deal a serious blow to al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups.
He will also note a sharp turnaround in once-restive regions such as Anbar province, where the U.S. has teamed up with Sunni tribal sheikhs to combat al Qaeda in Iraq, and in Sunni areas of Baghdad, where Sunni residents have turned to the U.S. for help in securing their neighborhoods from Shiite militants such as Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
“The Sunnis realize they have lost the battle for Baghdad,” said one military planner. “The problem we face is that the Shiites don’t realize they have won.”
Indeed, Gen. Petraeus is expected to warn that Iran is expanding its attempts to destabilize Iraq by providing Shiite extremists with lethal weaponry such as advanced roadside bombs capable of breaching even the strongest U.S. armor. U.S. commanders say that Iranian-made weaponry is used in an increasing percentage of attacks on U.S. forces, and that Shiite extremists are now responsible for as many anti-American attacks as Sunni radicals.
Iran denies supplying weapons to Iraqi militants, but the accusation is at the center of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran that have sparked talk of a possible American military strike on Iran.
“We’ve got a major problem with Iranian munitions streaming into Iraq,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “This Iranian interference is troubling and we have to stop it.”
He said 48 advanced roadside bombs — a type the U.S. says are made in the region only in Iran — have been used against his forces in central and southern Iraq, killing nine American soldiers. Gen. Lynch also said the U.S. stopped a planned attack on an American base that would have made use of 46 Iranian-made rockets.
U.S. officials acknowledge the difficulty of stemming the flow of weapons across a border that is unfenced and thinly patrolled in many parts. But they hope that forcing smugglers off the main roads will make it easier to spot the militants through aerial surveillance.
Gen. Lynch says the new effort to curb the flow of Iranian weaponry will have several components: stationing U.S. soldiers at a new base to be built close to the border; building six fortified checkpoints to be manned by troops from the former Soviet republic of Georgia on the highways and major roads leading from the Iranian border to Baghdad; and installing better detection equipment at the Zurbatiya border crossing to make it harder for militants to hide weapons in the hundreds of trucks that pass into Iraq from Iran every day.
The new U.S. base, to be located about four miles from the Iranian border, is meant to be a central component of the expansive American effort to hinder the weapons smuggling. U.S. officers say they plan to use the new base for at least two years, though they say it is unclear whether the outpost will be among the small number of facilities that would remain in Iraq after any future large-scale U.S. withdrawal from the country.
Maj. Toby Logsdon, the U.S. officer overseeing the project, says that the new base will have living quarters for at least 200 soldiers. He hopes U.S. forces will begin living at the new outpost in November.
“Iran will know this is here — they will have to rethink how they do things, and the smugglers will have to rethink how they do things,” he says, gesturing to the sandy field where the new base will be built.
The challenge of preventing Shiite militants from smuggling weaponry and explosives across the largely porous Iraqi-Iranian border was apparent on a recent visit to Wasit, a sparsely populated Iraqi province that abuts the long border between the two countries. There is no fence or wall separating Iran and Iraq, and the border itself is unmarked.
The only Iraqi government presence is a string of primitive border forts, which lack power and running water. The Iraqi officers who command the forts say chronic fuel shortages mean that they and their men don’t have enough gas to drive along the border looking for infiltrators from Iran.
Compounding the challenge, the province is populated by Shiite tribes that have profited for decades by smuggling items to and from Iran. U.S. commanders say the tribes are adept at using the deep gorges and wadis that crisscross the desert to pass into and out of Iran undetected.
“The tribes used to use these same routes to bring in weapons for the Shiite groups fighting Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Col. Mark Mueller, who commands a military advisory team working with Iraq’s poorly funded border guards. “They’ve been doing this a long, long time.”
Nevertheless, U.S. commanders believe the new checkpoints will boost their interdiction efforts by forcing militants to avoid using the major highways where the checkpoints are situated and instead travel on small dirt roads or across the open desert, where the smugglers’ vehicles stand a better chance of being spotted by American satellites, drones and surveillance airplanes.
“You want to separate the sheep from the wolves, and push the wolves to alternate routes that are easier to interdict,” Col. Mueller says.