When U.S. soldiers reached this stretch of Iraq’s border with Syria, some expected to face off against foreign fighters they thought would be crossing into the country in trucks packed with weapons.
Instead, they found caravans of mules crossing the border without their human masters, the clever tactic of smugglers in Syria who load contraband on dozens of mules or donkeys and set them free to amble down familiar paths.
“They can just smack the mules on the rear and they’ll meet them at a rallying point” across the border, said 1st Lt. Scott Weaver, of Susanville, Calif., an intelligence officer with the 1st Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols this area.
Though smugglers here mostly traffic in gasoline and cigarettes — sometimes up to $200,000 worth of cargo in one trip — military officials say the trade helps fund the insurgency that has gripped cities to the east such as Tal Afar and Mosul.
Sometimes mules are laden with so much contraband they cannot stand back up after they lay down to rest.
U.S. and Iraqi officials frequently call on Syria to close their side of the border. But the smuggling problem also has roots on the Iraqi side. Some Iraqis in the area consider their ties to the government second to those with their fellow tribesmen, who live on stretches of land that cover both countries.
“It’s not a geographic boundary. It is a political boundary where the British and French divvied things up” after World War I, said Capt. James Pavlich, an intelligence officer from Pinetop, Arizona.
In one Sunni Arab Iraqi border town, the local sheik also oversees villages in Syria, often crossing the border to visit family, U.S. soldiers said.
“(Insurgent) forces within their towns are still their people. There is tremendous cultural hesitation to provide information to an outside force,” said Capt. Dan Ruecking of Elmhurst, Ill., a battery commander in the 1st Squadron.
So U.S. troops have been digging dozens of wells in the area to build goodwill among villagers.
The U.S. military has focused on stopping human trafficking of insurgents willing to launch suicide attacks inside Iraq. So far, 15 of those arrested crossing the border in this area since May have confessed to trying to join the insurgency, said officials who estimate insurgents pay only $150 to $200 to local handlers for help with passage.
According to Iraqi border guards, other illegal crossing tactics include bribing Syrian guards to fire their weapons or stage fake arrests to attract the attention of Iraqi guards while smugglers quickly sneak across. On one night, a burst of gunfire was seen in the sky coming from the Syrian side of the border.
“The same Baath Party is also in Syria, so they’re helping the bad guys inside Iraq,” said Garby Nasser, an Iraqi border guard, referring to the party that ruled Iraq for decades under Saddam Hussein and that still rules Syria.
Though much of the area along Iraq’s border with Syria is desert flatlands, parts have gullies and even a ridge of mountains that help conceal border crossers from U.S. armored vehicles and helicopters that peer out at night with high-powered observation equipment.
Even with the added troops and equipment, the task of closing the border is difficult, especially when locals know the terrain. On one recent patrol, a U.S. helicopter spotted about 30 mules and five men near the border, but they quickly melted into villages before U.S. ground forces could arrest the men or seize the cargo.
Slow but steady progress
Iraqi border outposts still struggle with basic equipment, though the U.S. military says more supplies are on the way. At one outpost, Iraqi guards complained of a shortage of food and said they had to pool their personal money together to buy gasoline for their vehicles.
Tensions between Kurdish and Arab guards are also evident, U.S. soldiers said, underscoring the social strains in this ethnically diverse area.
Even the legal border crossing point to the north in the city of Rabiah is a concern for U.S. commanders. Several Iraqi guards were recently fired for corruption.
U.S. forces have recently been added to the crossing to check the work of border guards and watch out for fake passports.
“We are watching every station,” said Lt. Col. Greg Reilly, adding that Iraqi guards “are starting to actually do their job.”
The U.S. military recently sent teams of U.S. soldiers to live at border forts and train some of the hundreds of border guards stationed in the border outposts, which are interspersed about every 2.5 miles. Soldiers say progress is steady but training is slow because many of the guards have no prior military experience.
“On top of money issues, they also have morale and motivation problems,” said 2nd Lt. Matt McKee, of Vienna, Va., who trained Iraqi guards for one month.