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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 August, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Protecting Iraq's frontiers

By Peter Greste
On the Iraq/Iran border

Out in the desert, along the border with Iran, runs a chain of sand-coloured forts.

The Beau Geste-style ramparts stare across the scorched plains and former battlefields that scar the frontier.

A mine on the Iraq/Iran border
Mines litter the landscape of the border area
Together they form a thinly stretched chain that is the front line in the battle to stop militant fighters from crossing into Iraq, to take part in the insurgency.

Until the hand-over of power last month, border security had been the responsibility of the coalition forces.

In the south, it was the Royal Welch Fusiliers who kept watch.

Now they've pulled out of the forts, and left them to the newly-formed Iraqi Border Guard.

Under-equipped

But the task is vast.

The border that rings Iraq is 3,650 kilometres long; most of it as porous as the sand on which it's drawn.

For generations tribesmen and smugglers have crossed back and forth almost as if it didn't exist.

Yet much of Iraq's economic future depends on the smooth and secure flow of goods and people with its neighbours.

The border guards are keen, but they also complain of being under-equipped and under-trained.

Major James Gasley from the Welch Fusiliers went on an inspection of one of the outposts.

A British soldier training a member of Iraq's Border Guard
British soldiers can provide training, but ammunition is in short supply

In the chaos immediately after the war, looters had stripped the place bare, taking everything from furniture to wiring.

They even punched out the window-frames.

The officers in charge complained that they needed ammunition, better weapons, more officers and fuel.

Major Gasley listened patiently, but told them there's no money for fuel.

Variable skills

"The operating budget has run out and we're waiting for more from Baghdad," he said.

Even so, he was full of praise for the sheer enthusiasm of the new recruits.

"Their skills are a bit variable, but it's my squadron's job to try and bring those skills up," he said.

"The improvements are huge. All I can say is, given the fuel and the equipment and the infrastructure, they can look after themselves tomorrow."

And that's the principle that underpins the coalition forces' exit strategy: to train and equip Iraqi security forces to the point where foreign troops can safely withdraw.

Even now, Commander David Cullen of the Royal Welch Fusiliers said he's pulling his men back into the shadows, where they are merely supporting their Iraqi counterparts.

"We're not asking them to take on more than they're capable of doing, but we are having to push them forward to do more and more.

"The critical point is that we are still here, and that's why the coalition forces are still here - to support them and provide the substance in those areas where they are still lacking."

Royal Welsh Fusiliers on patrol
The Welsh Fusiliers want to hand over patrols to Iraqis

But the challenge is enormous.

Last Wednesday, a joint unit of US Special Forces, Ukrainian troops and Iraqi police challenged a group of more than seventy insurgents in the Wasit province, who they suspected of crossing from Iran.

In the fierce shoot-out that followed, 35 insurgents died, along with seven Iraqi police.

Nobody knows how many others have made it through without detection.

But they seem to be well armed and committed fighters.

And on current form, they're likely to be more than a match for the lightly equipped and inexperienced border guards.


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