In January 2009, encouraged by a period of relative peace in the region, the Iraqi government began to dig a 150-kilometer trench between Iraq’s Al-Anbar province and southern Syria. Completed in December, the
The trench, which stretches along part of Iraq’s western border, spans two-and-a-half meters and is three meters deep. It was completed on 5 August.
Al-Anbar has recently witnessed a wave of bombings, the latest of which targeted the province’s governor in a double suicide attack. The governor was seriously injured and evidence gathered thus far links the attack to al-Qaeda.
“There is no doubt that al-Qaeda’s cells in Iraq are now less numerous but their attacks are becoming more focused and better prepared,” said Sufyan al-Dulaimi, a political analyst. “As elections draw near, attacks have increased in number.”
Talk of al-Qaeda’s involvement in the attack comes at a time when the Iraqi government has been accusing the Syrian authorities of supporting and providing logistical assistance to Baathists living in Syria. According to Baghdad, these Iraqis were planning and implementing attacks which involved secretly crossing the border from Syria.
Brigadier General Haqqi Ismail al-Fahdawi, the commander of the border’s guards of al-Anbar and Ninawa (Nineveh) provinces said that “it was upon the directives of the central government and the concerned authorities that the trench was dug in order to prevent terrorists from crossing the borders.” There are some 200 checkpoints in place to monitor and protect the borders along the 600 kilometer long Syria–Iraq borders.
“As a result of studies of and field visits to the Syria-Iraq borders made by the specialized committees, the idea of a trench was settled on as the way to stem infiltration and smuggling,” al-Fahdawi told Niqash. “It was designed in a way that would allow neither people nor vehicles nor animals to cross the borders.”
On the effectiveness of the trench, al-Fahdawi said that arrests had been especially numerous in 2009 and included 500 infiltrators, smugglers and suspects. “Most of them have Iraqi nationality – very few were Syrians,” al-Fahdawi said. He said that more than 250 of the infiltrators had been arrested in the last few months.
“More than 75 stolen cars were found, 2500 medicine boxes were confiscated, and 8000 cigarette boxes,” he said. “Huge amounts of money, foreign currency, gold and drugs (100 bags), weapons and rockets were confiscated. 250 sheep and animals – intended for smuggling – were found.”
Al-Fahdawi said that the exact route of the trench was chosen according to where most smuggling and infiltration incidents had taken place in the past. Thus the trench began in the worst-hit areas and then developed beyond them too.
Colonel Jamal Mahmoud, police chief in al-Qaim, 480 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, said that many infiltrators had been arrested in the west of the province, especially in al-Qaim District. “The border checkpoints are spread along the Syrian-Iraqi borders and patrols are all alerted day and night to protect the borders from smugglers and infiltrators,” said Mahmoud. “Just recently, we were able to arrest five people who were attempting to cross the borders from al-Qaim,” he added.
But Al-Fahdawi said that other security measures are being taken to protect the borders too. “An electronic monitoring project has been started and towers provided with cameras were constructed along the Iraq-Syria-Jordan borders,” al-Fahdawi said. “Thanks to these towers, borders will be expertly monitored like in advanced countries.” He hopes one day to see similar measures taken along all of Iraq’s borders.
Ahmad al-Mahlawi, a tribal leader in al-Ubaydi city in al-Qaim district, said that “there is no doubt that security is very much connected to protecting borders and to preventing infiltrators and smugglers from entering Iraq. The trench will certainly have a positive role to play in this regard.”
But despite its many supporters, the trench has critics too, mostly those who believe it will never achieve its aims. Umm Uthman, a school teacher living in al-Ramadi, said that “as elections are drawing near there are growing fears of terrorist operations. We do not expect that borders will be well checked by the security authorities and we have our doubts as to whether they are capable of stopping terrorists from carrying out their criminal plans,” she said.
A security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Niqash that smuggling and infiltration is going on beneath the watching eyes of the security forces. “The borders are open to those who can pay,” he said. “They are open for smugglers of sheep and cigarettes as well as infiltrators.”
“Usually there is coordination going on between smugglers, and terrorists from the one side and the authorities on the other,” the security expert said. “Smugglers know what time checkpoints close and they know which places are left without surveillance. In some cases security forces provide support to smugglers regardless of their identity.”
For his part, al-Fahdawi said that “there have been some smuggling operations conducted with the help of the security forces who were tempted to participate driven by the amounts paid by smugglers.” He added that criminals had not been left alone. “We have punished them and all those who helped them,” he added. “Protecting the borders means a secure Iraq, and our men are deployed along the borders, which are very long and very difficult to protect.”