NINEWAH PROVINCE // Efforts to control Iraq's border with Syria are being undermined by a shortage of manpower and money as well as police collaboration with insurgents, according to officers in the Iraqi security forces. A critical 400km section of the desert frontier in Ninewah province, northern Iraq, near Mosul, is currently being guarded by a 3,600-man detachment of the Iraqi Border Patrol (IBP). Despite long-running concerns about Islamic militants crossing into Iraq and an ongoing diplomatic crisis between Baghdad and Damascus over claims of Syrian support for insurgents, Iraqi commanders in the area say they remain significantly under resourced.
"We have a shortage of soldiers in the border patrol. We need an extra 700 to 1,000 to be able to do our job properly and they probably need better pay. At the moment a basic border patrol officer earns about US$420 [Dh1,500] a month. It's not enough," said Lt Col Rashid Hassan al Raskani, a battalion commander in the IBP in Ninewah. Corruption is rife in Iraq, with security officials complaining that insurgents routinely bribe their way through checkpoints or out of police custody. Low salaries are partly to blame and reduced Iraqi government budgets, a result of oil prices that have tumbled from just over US$145 (Dh533) a barrel last July to just under $70 now, have done nothing to help the situation.
Lt Col al Raskani, who has served on the Iraq-Syria frontier since 2004, said while the security situation had improved in recent years, foreign Islamic militants were still entering Iraq and carrying out high-casualty attacks. "No border in the world is totally secure and Iraq's border with Syria is no different," he said in an interview. "Every day we conduct patrols and operations and we catch smugglers and terrorists."
While some smugglers were simply trying to avoid import taxes, others were bringing in extremists or weaponry, he said. "The biggest smugglers are only interested in money, so they will bring anything for profit. Cigarettes or insurgents, it's all the same to them." In an attempt to make illegal crossings more difficult, three-metre deep trenches and three-metre high sand berms have been constructed at various key points along the border. American forces stationed in Ninewah have installed biometric scanning machines at the Rabea'a point of entry. They allow entrants to be cross-checked against CIA wanted lists held on a computer database in Washington.
"I wish we could cut the border 100 per cent but that's not possible," Lt Col al Raskani said. "We can only do what we are capable of doing and we do not have the resources to seal the border entirely." Details about Islamic fighters suspected of entering Iraq from Syria remain vague. The IBP in Ninewah had no figures for how many might be making the crossing each month. US troops in Ninewah believe the numbers have been reduced since the start of the year.
"We have been very proactive along the border," said Col Gary Volesky of the 1st Cavalry Division, the commander of US forces in the area, headquartered in Mosul. "When we came in here [in January 2009], five to seven foreign fighters were crossing every month according to our estimates, but since then I think that has fallen away. "It's difficult to tell unless you catch a foreign fighter, but they do not come in to do small arms fire attacks. They are involved in the bigger attacks, the suicide attacks, and we have been seeing fewer of those, certainly in Mosul."
A shortage of manpower is also hindering efforts to further improve security in Mosul itself, a city that remains beset by political violence. Although there have been sharp reductions in insurgent activity compared with last year, assassinations, kidnappings, drive-by shootings and bombings remain an almost daily occurrence. "We are 5,300 police short in Mosul so when people say the police are not capable they are exactly right. They don't have the necessary manpower," Col Volesky said. "We are working hard with the Ministry of Interior to put that right. There was a budget freeze, they couldn't recruit new officers.
"The Mosul police force is 1,300 investigative officers short. Once we get the manpower, we can get the police back in the fight." Ninewah province has been hit in a series of large-scale attacks in recent months. On September 10, a truck bomb demolished the centre of Wardak, a Kurdish village, killing some 20 people and injuring dozens more. The previous month twin truck bombings in Khazna, home to the minority Shabak community, killed 35 civilians.
Al Qa'eda style extremists are commonly blamed and Iraqis are convinced such acts of violence are designed to ignite an ethnic war between Kurds and Arabs. Tensions between the two groups, centred on the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, continue to simmer, despite United Nations and US mediation efforts. Lt Falah Hassan, an Iraqi police officer co-ordinating between US and Iraqi forces in the Ninewah border region, said members of the Iraqi security forces, including the IBP, were complicit in insurgent activity.
"There are Iraqi police and Iraqi army working with the terrorists," he said. "I'd say that 80 per cent, perhaps more, are good honest police officers or soldiers. "There are surveillance systems on the border and we see people coming in illegally. We send patrols out but we don't always find them. "They probably get shelter in one of the villages and I think the Iraqi border forces were involved, they let them cross without any problems.
"Actually I can't say the Syrian government is at fault. Maybe the fault is our own, we have not managed to protect the border very well." On August 19 two huge bombs hit government offices in Baghdad, killing at least 132 people and wounding some 1,000 others. The Iraqi government quickly and publicly blamed the attacks on Baathist militants based in Damascus, sparking a diplomatic crisis. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, accused Syria of harbouring terrorists and called on the UN to launch an international investigation.
Damascus, which only a day before the explosions had hosted Mr al Maliki for talks with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, has denied involvement and insisted Iraq provide evidence supporting its claims. Iraqi Baathists living in exile in Syria have also denied any role. Iraq's presidency council has queried the rapid escalation in tensions, reflecting suspicions that Syria may have been blamed for domestic political reasons. Turkey has been playing a mediating role, holding talks last Thursday with Syria and Iraq's foreign ministers.
National elections are scheduled in Iraq for January 2010 and Mr al Maliki, hoping for re-election, has been keen to portray himself as the man who can provide security without help from US forces. A recent increase in large scale attacks - August saw the highest casualty figures in more than a year with at least 456 civilians and security personnel killed has chipped away at public confidence in Iraq's security forces.
In Eyadiyah, a Sunni Turkmen market town on the road between the Syrian border and Mosul - a place that US troops believe aids militants - questions remain about the quality of Iraqi forces as US troops pull back from their front-line security role. "The last time there were attacks it was the fault of the Iraqi army for not catching them. Someone let them through checkpoints," said Nash'at Sadiq Mohammad, the leader of the Eyadiyah town council.
"The police will sometimes arrest people but if they arrest an innocent man and a terrorist at the same time, the terrorist can be free within three or four days if he pays a big enough bribe - $1,000, $2,000. The innocent man might stay in prison for three or four months." Such complaints are acknowledged by US officials training the Iraqi police and are widespread across Iraq. Under pressure from Iraqi members of parliament, the ministry of interior this year began an investigation into abuse of authority committed by forces under its control.
According to Iraqi investigators, the insurgents suspected of involvement in the August 19 bombings bribed their way through checkpoints. While malign foreign influence remains a concern, the Iraqi and Syrian border forces have no system for co-operating; they police the vast frontier independently of one another. Syria has long maintained that it does not have the capability to secure the border without technical help from the US or Europe.
Mr Mohammad, of the Eyadiyah council, said he was more alarmed about Iraqi involvement in the insurgency and the social conditions fuelling discontent than he was about the Syrian border. Years of drought have crippled the local economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture. "Arab fighters are crossing in from Syria but the main people behind terrorist attacks are Iraqis," he said. "It's Iraqis who are the problem although we are certain they are getting support from other countries, not just Syria.
"My number one concern is the lack of employment. I'd say that 80 per cent of men in this town don't have regular incomes. It's dangerous to have young men sitting around with no work and no money. "It's the 14-year-olds, the 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds, they are the ones you can pay to make problems. They have no work, the terrorists have money. Pay them 50,000 dinars or 100,000 and they'll do anything."
US military commanders involved in reconstruction efforts and training of security forces say that while problems remain, progress is being made on both fronts. "The Iraqi border police are doing a great job," said Lt Col Guy Parmeter of the US 1st Cavalry Division, based in western Ninewah. "Overall this has been very refreshing, the degree and capability of the Iraqi forces has been much better than in previous years. They are in charge, they are able to do it.
"If I had to assign a percentage to it, I'd say they are at 99 per cent, if not 100, with us just helping. We have achieved the security framework that we are supposed to have." Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, US troops largely pulled out of major cities on June 30 and are due to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. Clauses in the deal leave open the possibility of American troops staying beyond the December 31, 2011 deadline.