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Saudis add helicopters, patrols along Iraq border

ARAR, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia has deployed helicopters and boosted patrols along its 500- mile northern border with Iraq, where it faces security threats from both sides in a deepening sectarian conflict.

The National Guard and the Ministry of Defense added 1,000 men each as border patrols increase, and helicopters were sent to the area at the end of June, General Faleh al-Subaie, commander of the Saudi Border Guard in the north, said Monday in the city of Arar. That's the command center for the Arar crossing station, about 37 miles away, where fences and 7 meter-high sand berms separate OPEC's two largest oil producers.

Saudi Arabia has ramped up security to prevent attacks from Sunni Islamist militants, who have already seized large swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq, and from Shiite militias who are aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraq's deepening sectarian conflict has raised concerns that the region's biggest economy may be targeted by either group.

Some Sunni groups have criticized Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, for its ties with the United States, while Shiites in Iraq have blamed it for supporting militants.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been strained since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The border crossing at Arar is open only during the Hajj pilgrimage. The customs and immigration buildings were closed when reporters visited Monday during a trip organized by the Interior Ministry.

Along the border, the number of "cars, cameras and men have been increased," al-Subaie said in his office in Arar city. "We are ready to protect the country."

Al-Subaie's forces monitor the border from observation towers with cameras and motion detectors. At the operation center in Arar, computer screens show radar sweeping territory for vehicles and other illegal activity, while along the border soldiers in bulletproof vests patrol in trucks with machine guns mounted on the back.

Illustrating the threat, three rockets were fired at the border area on July 7, landing close to a housing complex for border guards near Arar. The craters they left are still visible, and pieces of shrapnel are spread across the sand.

A few days earlier, Islamist militants killed four Saudi soldiers near the Yemen border, and two of the attackers blew themselves up in a suicide strike on a Saudi intelligence building, according to the Interior Ministry.
 

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