Iraq military lacks resources for Iran frontier

The US army's JSS Chilat, near Iraq's border with Iran. (PHOTO: Prashant Rao)

by Prashant Rao

This article was originally published by AFP on December 23, 2009. It can be found here.

AL SHIB PORT, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq’s border forces lack the resources to properly police the country’s long frontier with Iran and keep out insurgents and smugglers, US soldiers engaged in training them say.

The soldiers say their Iraqi counterparts securing the 1,458-kilometre dividing line between the two countries face in particular a lack of fuel for vehicles and a dearth of parts for maintenance.

“The bordering countries of Iraq are… responsible for a great deal of internal strife,” said Colonel Peter Newell, who leads the 4th Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, whose area of operations includes the southern provinces of Maysan, Dhi Qar and Muthanna.

“You can look at what the Iranians do here, in terms of providing money, front businesses and other things, their impact on the political scene and politics is not in the best interests of Iraq,” the 47-year-old added.

Newell continued: “Smuggling in Maysan has gone on for a couple of thousand years… they smuggle commodities, they smuggle drugs, they smuggle lethal aid, they smuggle people.” At Al Shib Port, a land entry point which handles around 150 trucks per day mostly carrying cement and tiles into Iraq from Iran, a new site to handle individual travellers was to have opened in July but remains unfinished with no completion date in sight.

“The big thing is the budget,” said Major Daniel Dorado, who leads a team of 11 other officers and non-commissioned officers helping train Iraqi border security teams at the port, in Maysan province.

“They need money for infrastructure and they need money for servicing,” the 34-year-old from Milalani, Hawaii, added.

The concern is echoed at other border outposts where Iraqi security forces team with American counterparts.

Questions over Iraq’s frontiers have long been raised – Tehran has been accused by the US military of supplying equipment and training for insurgent groups that cross into Iraq to carry out attacks.

More recently, Iranian forces took over an oil well last week that is claimed by Iraq. Security for the well is the responsibility of the oil ministry’s police force as well as the border guard.

A US army photographer stares out of a Blackhawk helicopter as it flies over southern Iraq, near the border with Iran. (PHOTO: Prashant Rao)

The lack of resources for border units is largely a result of a budget squeeze that Iraq, which depends on oil sales for the vast majority of its revenues, faced when crude prices fell earlier this year.

“They got caught up when the oil market dropped and the country lost so much of its future money,” said Newell, who estimated that border units were at about 65 per cent strength in terms of personnel.

“They had big plans – things to buy and people to bring in, and they went into a hiring freeze. They didn’t get equipped with a lot of things that they were expecting. So what was very good progress came to a slow crawl.” Baghdad has acquired a $49 million border surveillance system for its frontiers with Iran and Syria, but it will only provide security for 402 kilometres of the Iran border, less than a third of its length.

At Al Shib Port’s vehicle maintenance yard, meanwhile, an Iraqi mechanic responsible for the upkeep of 11 Ford trucks described his struggles to an American soldier on a routine weekly meeting.

“My time is only for fixing vehicles – that is my job,” the mechanic, who did not want to be named, told Staff Sergeant Kevin Volantine.

“But I want something to do and for that, I need parts.” According to Volantine, fuel allotted to the port is siphoned off on its way to its final destination, and by the time it arrives, there is only enough to put into the vehicles to carry out regular upkeep.

His assessment of fuel shortages was repeated by Sergeant First Class Tyler J. Trumble, who spent six months on Contingency Operating Site Hunter in Maysan.

“The resources are extremely limited, especially the further out you get, the worse they are,” said the 34-year-old, who added that many border security forces also lacked winter clothing and a full issue of ammunition or weapons.

“Fuel seems to be the biggest supply issue, still, to this day.” Trumble said along with fuel being stolen, tankers were also being hijacked.

In practice, that means border enforcement units often have to conduct patrols on foot rather than in a vehicle, dramatically increasing their workload.

At an Iraqi border fort north of Al Shib Port, the 275 personnel stationed there on any given shift are responsible for a total of 1,600 square kilometres of land, averaging out to 5.8 square kilometres each.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot if you’ve got a truck to jump in and you can just drive around,” said Major Dante Antonelli, 44, who leads a team similar to Dorado’s at a small US camp next to the border fort. “But when you don’t have that asset, it’s a lot.”

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