Watch Richard Engel's report.
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NBC News
updated 9/17/2003 2:53:37 PM ET 2003-09-17T18:53:37

Terrorism in Iraq may have a lot to do with what’s going along the porous border between Iran and Iraq. Iranians and Afghans sneak across it every day.

LIKE THE THREE Iranians who claimed they were making a pilgrimage to holy Shia cities in Iraq. They will soon be handed over to the Americans for questioning. Bakr Shakr, an Iraqi border guard commander, said he has captured more than 40 Afghans in the past two weeks.

He said members of Ansar al-Islam — an Iraqi group linked to al-Qaida and believed to be making inroads in the United States — fled into Iran when their bases in northern iraq were destroyed during the Iraq war. Now, he said, they are easily crossing back.

One dirt road in particular is well known to smugglers, and Iraqi border guards say they simply don’t have enough people or the right equipment to patrol it. So now, anyone now can cross from Iran into Iraq.

IMPORTED EXPLOSIVES

A smuggler told NBC News that human traffickers he works with have said that many Afghans bring explosives with them into Iraq to carry out attacks.

In a videotape obtained exclusively by NBC News, Syrian, Egyptian and Afghan fighters said the leaky borders make it easy for them to get in.

Now they operate around Fallujah, a hotbed of anti-American activity, and they join forces with Iraqi militant groups in the area, groups that have carried out many attacks against U.S. troops.

Though not part of the al-Qaida terrorist network, the foreign fighters say they support its mission.

“They believe in the same kind of ideology,” said M.J. Gohel, a political analyst. “They’re all part of what we call the global jihad network.”

HIDING OUT

U.S. officials are reported to have taken more than 220 foreign fighters in custody. They have come into Iraq mainly from Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

But those who aren’t caught quickly find anonymity in chaotic Iraq — especially in the cities.

“Baghdad is a very populated area,” said Army Maj. Chris Kennedy, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry. “Very easy to blend into.”

And Baghdad’s black market these days also provides quick new identities. For $200 you can buy a blank Iraqi passport, one of the documents looted from government offices.

The key, officials say, is catching the foreign fighters back at the border. More guards, more cars, even helicopters would would help, they say, because some of those blamed for the worst violence in Iraq may have passed through the border.

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