Marines, Iraqi forces report progress in effort to keep out foreign fighters
January 13, 2005
AL ASAD, Iraq — U.S. military officials in Anbar province are reporting progress in one of their most difficult missions: securing Iraq’s porous borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and turning over complete responsibility for the job to Iraqi forces.
Over the last three months, Marines under the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit have built — or rebuilt — more than two dozen border forts and recruited more than 1,000 specially trained Iraqi border security forces.
It is possible, Marine Corps officials say, to have the entire border security system in Iraqi hands by this year. If so, it would be a significant milestone in the U.S. military’s struggle to train and equip Iraqi security forces as a means to ending the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The effort’s centerpiece is a specialized Iraqi unit dubbed the Desert Wolves, which U.S. officials say will be the heart of a revitalized and reconstituted Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement.
“Bringing people into sections of the border where they’re not from is one of the smartest things we’ve done,” said Maj. Bart Logue, a Marine Corps foreign area officer attached to the Okinawa-based 31st MEU.
“It’s very important that they not be tied to the sheiks of that area, and they don’t have to follow the cultural rules,” he said in a reference to kickbacks, bribes and other forms of petty corruption and influence that U.S. officials say were rampant in the former regime and its security forces.
Several times a week, Logue, members of the Navy’s Seabees and the Army Corps of Engineers load into 31st MEU helicopters and check on the forts. They always are accompanied by a heavily armed security element.
On Tuesday, Marines from Company C, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines — armed with everything from light machine guns to rocket launchers — piled into two helicopters at Al Asad and headed out for an inspection of forts along the Iraqi-Saudi border.
About halfway to their destination, though, fierce sandstorms forced them to turn back. The conditions made a landing too dangerous to attempt, so the inspection was postponed. On days when they do reach the forts, the Marines clear and secure the areas, sometimes running into booby traps or discovering the forts — which resemble stone castles with turrets — vandalized or damaged.
The $32 million project is being undertaken through local contractors and labor, said Logue, a 33-year-old from Monterey, Calif., and a military-trained Arabic linguist. The forts are meant to add a physical presence to Iraq’s borders, which long have been sand berms in open stretches of desert.
Small teams from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also are working with Iraqi border forces, training them in customs, immigration and trade. Last month, Logue said, leaders of the Desert Wolves met with Syrian border officials for the first time in years to work on coordinating cross-border issues.
“That happened within the first 30 days of the program. I’m truly impressed,” Logue said. “These are the guys who are going to be making a difference for their country.”
The Syrian border has been the most difficult to secure, with U.S. officials saying hundreds of foreign fighters have been allowed to enter Iraq through that route. However, senior U.S. diplomats have said the problem is being curbed to some extent.
“We have seen a lot of improvement regarding foreign fighters who were using Syria to enter Iraq, and this is a good thing,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters last week in Damascus after meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“But I also made the point that former regime elements of the Iraqi regime sometimes cross back and forth on the border, and that it’s very important to have that stopped,” he said, according to a State Department transcript of his comments.
According to the Pentagon, the U.S. government is holding some 325 foreign fighters in Iraq. Nearly half of those were captured in the past two months, officials said, many during the November assault on Fallujah.
And though the aim of the border program is to stop the illegal traffic, recruiting and training a successful border force are crucial pieces of the larger security picture, military officials said.
“It’s important the security forces know this is a combined effort. It’s critical they know that when things are happening, we’re there to support them,” said Logue, who also serves as the 31st MEU’s Iraqi Security Forces coordinator.
“This is not because the 31st MEU happened to find a good bunch of Iraqis. The key is they are training alongside us. No one asks these guys to do anything the Marines are not willing to do,” Logue said.
“We’ve found something here that’s going to take us home.”