The road out of Ramadi, capital of Anbar, heading towards the Syrian border. (photo: ازهار صلال :جيتي)
“It is a daily journey into death,” says Imad al-Jibouri, a soldier whose brigade recently joined with Iraq’s border guards; he is talking about his drive to work, to enforce Iraq’s borders around the Rutba area in Anbar province, around 450 kilometres away from Baghdad.
“Travelling on the desert roads in Anbar to reach military barracks is not easy,” al-Jibouri continued. “It is a risky journey and requires that we hide among the local population as we travel and that we build good relationships with all those along our path, so that we can get to our workplace without any losses.”
The danger does not end when the border guards make it to their stations. “We are always under threat from the Islamic State group,” al-Jibouri says.
Over the past, few months there have been a continuous stream of reports in the Iraqi media about how the extremist group known as the Islamic State is continuing to attack Iraqi border guards. The 1,200 kilometre long western border of the country, neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is extremely porous and consists of a lot of desert and wilderness. On the other side of the border the Iraqis’ task is supposed to be shared with border guards from the neighbouring countries.
The reality is the border guards are not doing the job they are supposed to do. That is not because the guards are unqualified or unwilling.
“And the danger doesn’t end when we arrive at our barracks,” al-Jibouri continues. “There are not that many of us and we are continuously losing men to the IS attacks. There are not enough soldiers or weapons to confront an enemy like this. They know that we are weak and they know the government is negligent.”
“The border guards deployed in the Anbar desert can no longer handle this,” said another lieutenant from within the border corps, speaking to NIQASH on condition of anonymity. “There are attacks on them every day and the pace of the attacks has increased since the extremists were pushed out of a number of cities and forced to return to hideaways in the Anbar desert.”
Additionally, the lieutenant points out, most of the police stations in the area have been destroyed in previous attacks. This means the most the border guards can often do is simply remain inside their own barracks and protect themselves, as opposed to actually defending the Iraqi border. Extremists can easily slip in or out of the country.
“Some people may say that I am telling secrets that I should not tell,” the lieutenant adds. “But the reality is clear to everyone. The border guards are not doing the job they are supposed to do. That is not because the guards are unqualified or unwilling. It is because of the absence of logistical or moral support and the government’s negligence of the sector.”
Before the border guards even contemplate leaving their barracks, they “think a thousand times”, the lieutenant admits, even when they can clearly see the extremists moving freely in the area.
A senior officer, now retired, Ismail Hakki al-Fahdawi, used to command Iraqi border guards – and he has his own theory as to why there are so many problems now.
“The border guards have participated in fighting the IS group in various cities and they have been forced to take on tasks that are not actually part of their responsibilities,” he explains. “These are all factors that have weakened this all-important force.”
“The border guards have been trained to deal with smugglers and infiltrators. Their job is reconnaissance and defensive. The fact that they were pulled off that job and tasked with fighting in Iraq’s cities has allowed the extremists to regain control of parts of the desert,” al-Fahdawi told NIQASH.
The border guard is different from other military forces, concedes Major General Ammar al-Qubaisi, who commands a corps of border guards. “We are working in remote areas far from the cities – such as the Saudi-Jordanian triangle, and the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish area. These areas pose a major challenge and moving around in these areas is far from easy.”
For example, al-Qubaisi says, that whenever he takes leave and then tries to return to his base, he and his guards are almost always attacked. “There is an area of around 40 kilometres in which we must kill or get killed,” the commander told NIQASH. “We incur both human and financial costs when we take these roads. These incidents happen all the time to both officers and ordinary soldiers.”
“We just don’t have the capacity to protect our own men, who use their private vehicles to get to the barracks,” he continues. “This would require military patrols at certain times and in certain places in order to protect the soldiers who are simply coming and going.”
According to al-Qubaisi, things are not all bad though. He says the central government has approved the funding to purchase and equip 200 trailers for border guards as a first step toward replacing the police stations that have been destroyed by the IS group in these areas. The border guards will also be getting 12 thermal imaging cameras that can detect humans trying to cross a border at a distance of over 20 kilometres away.
Given the fact that leaving one’s barracks can mean death, its still unclear whether these will be much help.