U.S. Helps Iraq Bolster Its Borders

A U.S. soldier watches a platoon of Iraqi border guards at the Zurbathia point of entry, on the border with Iran.
CBS/Cami McCormick
This story was written by CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick, embedded with U.S. forces at the Iraq-Iran border.

More than 40 Iraqi military installations now dot Iraq's border with Iran. Both the Iraqis and the U.S. military believe that fortifying this border is essential to bringing security to Baghdad.

The Zurbathia port of entry is one of the closest to the Iraqi capital, which is the "center of gravity, where a lot of our problems exist right now in terms of security," says U.S. Army Col. Harry Miller, who oversees nine U.S. Border Transition Teams.

American advisers have stepped up their work here, and there have been "improvements," but they admit there is a lot to be done.

On the Iranian side of this border checkpoint there's a wall fortified with razor wire, buildings for the nearly 1,200 visitors who pass through each day, and armed guards in watch towers.

The Iraqi checkpoint has a tin roof supported by poles and surrounded by some fencing. Arrivals file through a graveyard of broken down electric generators on the floor. A tattered Iraqi flag flies overhead.

"The main thing we need here is structure, walls for security," says Capt. Nick Turner. "Iran has its own wall. When we first got here this little fence wasn't even here. It was a very organized Iran, and then you walked in to this."


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As he speaks, there's an explosion on the Iranian side of the border. "They're just showing off," Turner says.

A new Iraqi Brigade headquarters has been built a few miles inside the border, but the Americans say logistics will be one of the greatest challenges along the fence. For example, as the Iraqis recruit more border guards, demand on an already-short housing supply will increase.

"Some of them live as far as Baghdad, which is two and a half hours away, and to travel the roads is very dangerous," says Turner, who adds that the Iraqis work shifts of one week on, one week off. "So they'll stay here for the week that they're on and then go home."

Many live in poorly maintained modular housing, already here before the American team arrived. An Iraqi lieutenant says his men need the basics — warmer jackets and fuel for generators, because there is no electricity out here.

The U.S. military has provided them with new uniforms. When this first Border Transition Team arrived 10 months ago, most Iraqi guards "had civilian clothing and shoes, and now you see them with boots and uniforms, flak vests and Kevlar," says Staff Sgt. Marco Mendoza, who handles logistics.

But there is a shortage of specialized equipment. The Zurbathia post has just one working X-ray machine and is waiting for another. That was one topic of discussion at a recent meeting here between visiting U.S. commanders and Iraqi border officials.

"Baggage scanners are desperately needed," Miller acknowledges.

Corruption is rampant. The Iraqi border guards often accept bribes in exchange for allowing people and materials into the country.

"It can be frustrating," says Miller. "It's something that has to be addressed continually."

The problem was so prevalent that a new Iraqi port of entry director who attempted to root out corrupt officers and guards has now found himself short on workers.

The push to secure the borders is being stepped up, according to Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, who oversees Iraq Transition Teams that advise Iraqi army and border forces and the National Police.

Sometimes over-looked because of the daily battle in Baghdad and elsewhere, Pittard says the borders are an important element in the fight against the insurgency.

The coalition has finished building 200 forts along Iraq's borders. More equipment will be flowing in, and the number of U.S. advisers has increased, says Pittard. There will also be a more layered approach to border control, with checkpoints on major roadways farther inland.

For the time being, the Americans are making themselves as visible as they can to set an example for the Iraqis and act as a deterrent to would-be smugglers. They visit Zurbathia several times a week from their U.S. military base and sometimes stay for days at a time.

"We try to maximize our exposure," Miller says. "They (the smugglers) either wait us out, or they go different directions. There are a number of smuggling routes that have existed for years. But we're becoming more aggressive with interdiction."

In the future, though, he says the Iraqis will have to rise to the challenge.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.