Reuters: At a dusty border speck on the map where tanks once fought a bitter war in a brutal landscape, trucks now stretch to the horizon, a sign of growing contact between former enemies. By Paul Tait
ZURBATIA, Iraq (Reuters) – At a dusty border speck on the map where tanks once fought a bitter war in a brutal landscape, trucks now stretch to the horizon, a sign of growing contact between former enemies.
Tensions still simmer and Zurbatia has become an outpost of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to stem the flow of Iranian weapons and agents into Iraq’s south and east.
“When we first got here about a year ago there was literally a gate and an open field where people and commerce passed,” said Colonel Mark Mueller, commander of a U.S. military unit working with Iraqi border guards in Iraq’s eastern Wasit province.
“There were a lot of challenges for security,” he said.
Washington and the U.S. military accuse Shi’ite Iran of funding, training and arming Shi’ite militias in Iraq with roadside bombs, including armor-piercing “explosively formed penetrators”. Tehran denies the charge.
Hundreds of trucks, piled high with bright yellow and green melons, bags of onions, building supplies and furniture, queue for miles every day on the Iranian side of the border, waiting to bring in imports on which Iraq’s shattered economy relies.
Buses wait to unload tour groups full of religious pilgrims headed for Iraq’s Shi’ite holy sites. Iraqis head the other way to Iran for medical treatment they can’t get at home and to escape Iraq’s remorseless heat.
“It used to be almost impossible to keep the incoming and the outgoing people separated,” said Mueller’s deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Baum, at Zurbatia’s new checkpoint.
“It was horrible for us. You couldn’t make rhyme or reason for what’s happening. At least now we’ve got the inbound sorted from the outbound,” he told Reuters.
The U.S. military this year launched a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops in a last-ditch bid to stop the slide to civil war, aimed both at al Qaeda fighters and Shi’ite militias. Part of that effort has focused on stemming the flow of weapons.
“We do know that explosively formed penetrators are getting across the border, we do know that … rockets are coming across the border, so of course it’s a concern,” Mueller said.
Wasit’s section of the Iraq-Iran border stretches for 143 km, (90 miles) so it is unlikely weapons smugglers would try to get through a heavily guarded checkpoint complete with two x-ray machines scanning every vehicle for arms.
“Like water, it’s going to flow to the path of least resistance,” Baum said.
Mueller said about 2,000 Iraqi guards patrol Wasit’s stretch of the border. “They are stopping illegal crossers and also looking at munitions capabilities that may cross the border other than here at the port of entry,” he said.
The checkpoint sits on a slim finger of land jutting from Iran into Iraq, surrounded by desert, a quarry where trucks send up choking clouds of powdery dust and mountains to the east.
In the past 11 months huge open-sided sheds have been built where incoming and outgoing crowds now wait in separate queues while their passports are checked and their baggage searched.
A maximum of 1,500 Iranians a day are permitted to cross into Iraq at Zurbatia, with no limit on Iraqis entering Iran.
Porters in blue overalls earn about $30 a week in tips pushing ramshackle carts piled high with baggage, the old and infirm, black-shrouded women and children.
New computers allow Iraqi immigration officials to process the crowds, with high-tech biometric scans used to seek out anyone on U.S. or Iraqi wanted lists.
A green gate on the Iranian side was once the only barrier, sometimes allowing up to 500 people through at a time, overwhelming Iraqi border officers.
U.S. soldiers threw together a few concrete blocks a couple of meters away to form three walls, swung a gate between two of them and painted it white so that Iraqi officials now also have a say in how often people come through and in what numbers.
Up to 450 trucks a day also queue at the Zurbatia border checkpoint, Wasit’s only official port of entry. Fuel trucks are the only Iranian vehicles that are allowed to cross.
Everything else must be “transloaded” — Iranian trucks and are driven up to a holding area where their loads are shifted to Iraqi vehicles. Passengers on buses must alight and walk across.
Iraqi patrol guards in a watch tower high above the border crossing monitor the transloading process in Iran, identifying suspect trucks which are then searched by hand when they cross.
Baum said Iraqi and Iranian officials recently agreed to build a joint transloading facility where trucks will be searched while their loads are moved. Construction has begun on the Iranian side of the border.
“It takes hours to search that kind of truck,” he said, pointing to a truck full of hundreds of melons.
(Editing by Dominic Evans)