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All quiet on Iraq's western front

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On border patrol with the US Cavalry - Pictures by Stuart Phillips

By Jim Muir
BBC News, at the Iraqi Border

According to the Iraqi government, Syria is responsible for 90% of the insurgent violence still wracking the country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki angrily blamed the Syrians for two massive bombing attacks aimed at government ministries in Baghdad in August and October.

Damascus, he said, was harbouring hundreds of Baathist diehards plotting to return to power and directing sabotage operations from their haven there.

It was also allowing a constant flow of armed militants, material and money to cross the long border between the two countries, he charged.

But out here, near the northern end of that border, there is little evidence of any activity to support such accusations.

Smugglers

Officers at Iraqi Border Fort 24 - one of a chain of police fortresses floating in the haze along the desert frontier - could not speak on the record.

A fort on the border between Iraq and Syria
Fort 24 is on the dusty northern frontier between Iraq and Syria

But they told us that in the past eight or nine months, the Iraqi Border Guard in this area have not intercepted a single armed militant.

They are currently holding 33 detained infiltrators, all of whom are believed to be cigarette smugglers, who would normally carry one Kalashnikov assault rifle per group for self-defence.

We spent two days monitoring the nearby border area with a ground patrol from the US Cavalry.

"During our time here so far, the past 21 days, we've caught three border crossers, and there's a very good likelihood that they were just normal people trying to smuggle cigarettes across the border to pay for their families," said squadron commander 1st Lt Nicholas Grodevant.

Hi-tech monitoring

That group of three infiltrators showed up initially as "heat signatures" on some of the sophisticated detection devices used by US vehicles, helicopters and planes patrolling the border zone.

Lt Nick Grodevant
If we weren't here, there's definitely a potential that something else could be coming across the border
Lt Nicholas Grodevant
US troop commander at the border

The three men, hiding in a gully under what they thought was the cover of darkness, were then approached and detained by the ground patrol, which found them in possession of a $100 bill, around the same amount in Iraqi currency, half a carton of cigarettes and one Kalashnikov.

They were handed over to the Iraqi border police, and will eventually face prosecution for illegal border crossing.

Even without all the hi-tech monitoring devices, getting across the border is physically no easy task.

Defences

Along the Iraqi side there runs a trench, at least three to four metres in depth and the same across, too deep for a man to climb in and out of unaided.

KEY ATTACKS SINCE US PULLBACK
25 October: More than 150 killed in a double car bombing aimed at ministry buildings
19 August: At least 95 killed in wave of attacks in central Baghdad
31 July: At least 27 dead in bombings outside five Baghdad mosques
9 July: 50 killed in bomb attacks at Talafar (near Mosul), Baghdad, and elsewhere
30 June: US troops withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities. Car bomb in Kirkuk kills at least 27 people

Parallel to that, around 30m away, there is a "berm", or earth wall, that is about two or three metres high.

The barriers make it impossible to cross by vehicle or even with donkeys.

Smugglers are reduced to carrying what they can in sacks on their backs.

In addition to the physical obstructions, would-be infiltrators face detection by a barrage of hi-tech US surveillance.

Satellite images are supplemented by live video feeds from reconnaissance aircraft cruising the border.

Helicopters fly lower, on the lookout for anything unusual and reporting to the ground patrols.

Red herrings?

While we were with them, the patrol checked out a number of false alarms - a piece of paper at the bottom of the border ditch, some sand dunes that could have been arms caches, and a stack of bags that turned out to be filled with dried sheep droppings, used locally as fuel for fires.

Troops on the Syrian border
US Troops search suspicious bags on the Syrian border

The vehicles are fitted with state-of-the-art LRAS (Long-Range Acquisition System) night vision equipment that allows them to spot people with clarity up to five or six kilometres away in the dark.

Are they wasting a lot of time and money chasing red herrings?

Lt Grodevant believes not.

"We're assisting the Iraqi border patrol with our capabilities of night vision, air assets, and other things that they don't have," he said.

"If we weren't here, there's definitely a potential that something else could be coming across the border. So I think that we're still making a difference in deterring people crossing."

Funding

Back at the regional headquarters near Mosul, Col Gary Volesky, who commands coalition forces in the northern sector, pointed to another reason for the border vigilance.

Map

"We don't see many foreign fighters coming across the border - most of the high-profile attacks here are conducted by local Iraqis, so it's not this foreign movement coming in to carry out attacks," he said.

"But our focus out on the border is the interdiction of smuggling. Cigarette smuggling is big here. It funds a lot of the money that gets sent across from Syria into Mosul, that can be used to fund operations in Baghdad."

Like most remote border areas around the world, this one has traditionally been a place where smuggling was a way of life for some.

The cigarettes that do make it through the border are being brought into Iraq from Turkey before going across to Syria, where prices are higher.

At the drought-stricken, dirt-poor village of Hamdanieh, near the border, smuggling used to be something of a cottage industry.

"Not any more," said one villager, who gave his name as Amer.

"They used to smuggle kerosene, then livestock, and later, cigarettes," he said.

"But now, all that vigilance by government and American forces has made it much harder."



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