U.S. Building Forts On Iraq Border

A border fort manned by Iraqi "desert wolves" along the Syrian border from Cami McCormick 02/18/2005
Cami McCormick/CBS
By CBS News Correspondent Cami McCormick

The line of trucks and cars waiting to approach this Iraqi- and U.S.-manned checkpoint on the border with Syria stretches for dozens of miles. Drivers are forced to wait days before they're allowed to pass into Iraq. And many are turned back. Most of them are men of fighting age.

A force of about 500 Iraqis patrols this area of the border. Overseen by U.S. Marines, the Iraqis call themselves the "Desert Wolves." Many are former soldiers from Saddam Hussein's regime and most are recruited from Tikrit (Saddam's hometown), Samarra and Baghdad.

They were trained in Jordan to take over for a border police force that was largely disbanded because of corruption. Acting on the orders from the interim Iraqi government, Marines stripped many of the former guards of their weapons and vehicles.

Securing these borders is a priority of Task Force NAHA, based at Camp Korean Village near the town of ar Rutbah. And at the remote Al Walid border crossing, just over two dozen Marines work with the Iraqis, overseeing their inspection of cars and trucks.

The U.S. military is also supervising a complex of 32 forts being built along the borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. The Marines move the Iraqis into them as quickly as possible, because in the past the forts have been looted and destroyed before they could be manned.

U.S. officials say the number of foreign fighters they've detained has decreased in this area. But while the order to turn back men at the al Walid checkpoint may be having some effect, military officials admit they still see evidence the Syrian-Iraqi border is being infiltrated elsewhere.

Flyovers suggest desert berms have been breached and there is evidence of "rat lines," where foreign fighters may be making their way into the country.

At one outpost in the so-called "Triangle," where Iraq's border meets Syria and Jordan, 50 Iraqis are manning a fort, still under construction. It sits so close to the border, Syrian soldiers are clearly visible, and come out to watch, as a convoy of Marines heads to the fort to check on the progress of the Iraqis. When the Marines arrive, the Iraqi commander asks for kerosene (for heating) and drinking water.

U.S. military officials admit supplying these outposts will be difficult and they're working with the Iraqi government to speed up deliveries. Logistics will continue to be a problem as more of the forts are built and manned.

Still, Capt. Abbas, the commander of this unit of Desert Wolves, says his men feel good about the job they're doing. He says they believe much of the violence in Iraq is being inflicted by foreigners. In the future, he hopes to keep those outsiders from making their way into the country undetected.

The Marines hope the border patrol forces will eventually number more than 1,200.

"But this is a start," said Marine Capt. Chris Curtin. "They understand and have demonstrated a desire to make a difference out here."

And when the Iraqis become more competent at their jobs, Curtin says that will not only protect U.S. forces fighting insurgents elsewhere in the country but will stabilize all of Iraq.

Cami McCormick is an anchor and correspondent for CBS Radio News. She has covered events on-scene from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Ground Zero on September 11th. Her reports can be heard on these CBS Radio News stations.