x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iranians go under BAT scan at Iraq border

US forces use biometric automated tool to scan Iranians entering Iraq. They are also focusing on dissident Shiites who have received training guerrilla warfare tactics.

An Iraqi border police officer mans a watchtower at the Zurbatiya point of entry between Iran and Iraq.
An Iraqi border police officer mans a watchtower at the Zurbatiya point of entry between Iran and Iraq.

ZURBATIYA, IRAQ // Thousands of Iranians entering Iraq are being scanned and catalogued by US intelligence agencies, in an effort to stop suspected infiltration by Iran's elite military units. Officials from the US army and the department of homeland security are stationed on the Iran-Iraq border, where they collect retinal scans, fingerprints and photos of all males aged between 16 and 65 years coming into the country. These details are held in a massive computer database and crosschecked against records held in the United States by the security services. Anyone on a US wanted list is automatically identified and then detained by troops at the border. Iran is accused by the United States, and many Iraqis, of supporting insurgents, providing them with cash and modern weaponry to use in attacks on US forces. Iran is also widely suspected here of interfering in politics and of stoking sectarian discord, all allegations it denies. US officials say they have found newly manufactured Iranian munitions in the hands of Iraqi insurgents. Anti-US Shiite militants, including some interviewed by The National, have also claimed to have received training in Iran in advanced guerrilla warfare tactics. With Sunni extremist groups considered to be under some kind of control - at least for the moment - US and Iraqi government forces have been focusing more on dissident Shiites, known in US military slang as "special groups". US controls on the Iraqi border depend on a system known as Bat, the biometric automated tool. It is currently in place at the Zurbatiya crossing point and is to be installed at other points of entry. Males of all nationalities passing into Iraq go through the US-run system before entering the usual immigration process carried out by Iraqi officers. "We are BAT-sing 100 per cent of military-aged males," Col Grant Webb said in an interview at his headquarters, close to Zurbatiya. "If you come across that border you are going to be enrolled in the system. It has a very large database and the information is sent back to the US. "A person's information is compared to that and you can catch people as they come in. We have detained a number of people, high-value individuals we've been looking for." Col Webb, the 47 year-old commander of Task Force Tusken, the US and Iraqi border force in Wasit province, said six "high-value" suspects had been captured in the past year. "We get hits all the time," he said. "It'll say: 'Hold this person questioning' or something like that. When someone is a hit we'll call up to Baghdad to an intelligence section and we'll say: 'We have this person, what do you want us to do?' They'll generally say he's not a threat, but there have been a few occasions where they'll say: 'We'll send an aircraft out there tonight to pick this guy up'. "They've been Iranians and Iraqis. We caught an Iranian general, trying to transit. This guy is trying to go through as Joe Pedestrian." The United States is pumping millions of dollars into policing Iraq's borders. At Zurbatiya, where up to 5,000 people cross a day, a transfer centre is being built at a cost of US$5.2 million (Dh19m) in an attempt to prevent weapons trafficking and import tax evasion. Since the new measures were introduced, customs duties collected by Iraq at the site have soared from a few million dollars annually to more than $12m. Only lorries carrying refined oil products are allowed to cross the border. All other goods have to be unloaded from Iranian lorries and put into Iraqi vehicles, a process that happens on the Iranian side of the border. Iraqis and the US forces can only observe the process from a watchtower, hundreds of metres away. "There have been claims that accelerants have come though in the cargo," Col Webb said. "We've done a number of things to disrupt that. We have people watching the transfer of goods ? but it's a madhouse and you can't see what's happening, you can't tell if something is buried in the cargo." All lorries must pass an X-ray machine on the Iraqi side of the border that scans for hidden cargo. Similar machines are used on the US-Mexico border, where only 30 per cent of lorries are scanned. The final check involves manual search of random lorries. "This is no panacea," Col Webb said. "We know it's a deterrent, but we are in no way convinced we have prevented it." He admitted that no smuggled weapons had ever been intercepted, but said opium and hashish had been found. "We haven't caught anything the whole time we've been here, the whole time my predecessor was here" - about 24 months in total. "When I say we've never caught anything, I mean we're never caught any accelerants. There are certain times of the year when tomatoes are illegal. We've caught them putting tomatoes in a lorry and covering it with onions, that kind of thing." The US military remains convinced that Iranian weapons and personnel - Col Webb referred to them as "bad actors" - continue to cross into Iraq. Because the area around Zurbatiya is now relatively secure, they believe traffickers have simply moved their operations south to Maysan province, a marshy area notorious for smuggling. The British army used to be responsible for that border zone, but their pull back to Basra airport left it exposed according to the US army. "Iraqi intelligence, supported by our intelligence indicates a lot of that [smuggling] was going on in Maysan, south of us," Col Webb said. "They could see that we were partnered up with the Iraqis here. Down in the south the British pulled out, so all indications are that that area became the hole in the sink where everything was coming through." US forces are going to deploy to the Maysan border next month - more than two years after the British pulled out and handed security responsibilities over to the Iraqis. A force similar to that now operating in Wasit and Diyala will be set up there, with US units supporting Iraqi border patrols, and processing incoming males. In the meantime US troops have set up checkpoints on key routes running north from Maysan to Baghdad, in the hope of intercepting weapons en route to the Iraqi capital. Those too have turned up little so far, according to soldiers stationed on the isolated posts; to date a single consignment of untaxed fish is all the contraband that has been found. "I would never say we have shut this border off," Col Webb said. "I would not say that and I don't want to imply that at all. We have significantly disrupted smuggling and bad actors crossing the border, especially relative to Maysan. Now that's picking up. And I think that area is soon going to get plugged up as well." psands@thenational.ae