- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2009

RABIYA, Iraq

Iraq’s border with Syria extends for hundreds of miles through barren land patrolled by a relative scattering of security forces. But despite claims that exiled Saddam Hussein loyalists have been sneaking across to disrupt Iraq’s upcoming elections, the only evidence around one key outpost is faded slogans of Saddam’s banned Ba’ath Party painted on the wall of a decaying grain elevator.

Cigarette smugglers? Certainly. Foreign fighters? Sometimes.

But Iraqi and American security forces alike around the border town of Rabiya say they’ve neither seen nor heard of Ba’athists illegally crossing the border in recent months.

The claim has been raised with increasing force recently by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has blamed horrific bombings in Baghdad - including the ones Dec. 8 that killed at least 127 people - on an alliance of Sunni insurgents and Ba’athist loyalists who want to derail Iraq’s elections planned for March.

Two days after the attack, al Qaeda’s umbrella group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, posted a statement taking responsibility for the attacks.

“Nothing’s been communicated to me about Ba’athists,” Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said. He added he has been informed “about foreign fighters and insurgents.”

“What we’re seeing is some illegal smuggling, some contraband, smuggling of cigarettes - things like that,” Gen. Cucolo said.

To be sure, it is hardly likely that Ba’athists would identify themselves if captured. Former Ba’ath Party members could also try regular border crossings with their Iraqi passports, but many of the Ba’ath leaders still at large are on an Iraqi watch list and could need to rely on illegal crossings.

Though the number of arrests of obvious insurgents or foreign fighters crossing the border is relatively small, Gen. Cucolo said the Americans just don’t know what their presence here has deterred.

In Syria, the Iraqi Ba’ath Party spokesman, Khudair al-Murshidi, denied any links to attacks in Baghdad during an interview with Al Jazeera TV. But at nearly the same time, Mr. al-Maliki was clearly pointing his finger at Syria by calling on “neighboring countries that condemn the attacks to turn their words into actions.”

Iraqi officials have accused Syria of harboring Ba’ath Party militants - a charge denied by Damascus.

Despite officials’ denials of any Ba’ath-linked insurgents found along the border, there have been some recent arrests that point to insurgent ties.

Iraqi intelligence officers said officials stopped a Syrian man in a village near Rabiya last month who was disguised in a woman’s abaya - a black shapeless cloak worn from head to toe - and turned out to have inside information about the Oct. 25 ministry bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 155 people.

The officers gave no further details and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their roles in intelligence gathering.

Earlier this month, a U.S. Army patrol in al-Tamma, south of Rabiya, captured a donkey caravan with seven people who were crossing the border into Iraq. They were carrying guns and bullets designed to puncture body armor worn by security forces, and they tried to destroy their cell phones before they were caught.

On average, about five people are caught each month trying to sneak across the Syrian-Iraq border, U.S. military officials said. Most of them are smugglers, continuing along generations-old trade paths with cigarettes and other bounty.

Cigarette smugglers have become of particular concern to military and police forces, who believe the profits from the illicit tobacco that is brought to Syria from Iraq ultimately funds insurgents. “What we’re trying to figure out is whether the money they are making in Syria is financing violence in Iraq,” said Capt. Adam Taliaferro, commander of the U.S. Army’s border outpost in Rabiya.

The smugglers themselves usually are poor Iraqi farmers whose wheat and barley crops have been hit by the area’s ongoing drought and have few other ways to make money. Smuggling offers up to $20 for a trip of carrying a box of 10 cartons - usually Miami or Gauloise cigarettes - to Syria.

“The smuggling is not going to be finished,” said Iraqi Border Police Lt. Mohammed Hamad, the second-in-command at a border fort on a muddy swath a few yards from the Syrian line. “In Iraq, other counties, even in the United States, there is a lot of smuggling. We do our best.”

Even so, “it’s been a long time in my shift since I have seen any smugglers,” Lt. Hamad said. “We have not given them a chance to pass.”

At Lt. Hamad’s fort, a thin strip of grass - land whose ownership is claimed by both nations - lies between the official border line. On the Iraqi side, a waist-high wall of dirt and a shallow canal of water provides natural obstacles to crossers.

The U.S. Army and Iraq’s border patrol conduct night-long sweeps across vast, deserted swaths of land, often idling in the dark in hopes of ambushing smugglers, foreign fighters and other criminals. Overhead, American spy planes and helicopters use heat sensors and night vision to search for people sneaking over the border.

“It’s pretty much hit or miss,” said Lt. Dan Davison, a platoon leader who does the nightly searches known as “screen lines.”

Earlier this month, Iraq’s Ministry of Interior agreed to buy $49 million worth of equipment - including cameras, sensors, radar and communications systems to help secure its borders with Syria and Iran. The high-tech surveillance won’t cover the entire Syrian border, however: only about 171 miles of its 363-mile-long boundary with Iraq, according to the American military.

In Rabiya, a dusty border town surrounded by empty farmland, an estimated 500 truckloads of potatoes, apples, eggs and other foodstuffs enter Iraq each week through the port from Syria. The trucks themselves do not continue into Iraq: The produce is loaded off one tractor-trailer and onto another that has been cleared to carry the cargo into the country. The port itself is watched over by Iraqi police and border police, as well as the U.S. military.

An Iraqi army post is also nearby, and officials from all three Iraqi security agencies work in a small hut next to the U.S. Army camp at the base of the dilapidated grain elevator bearing the Ba’athist slogans.

Rabiya’s mayor, Jasim Mohammed Kahoush, said he’s far more worried about his city’s weak power supply and 10 percent unemployment rate than he is about foreign fighters - much less Ba’athists - crossing the border. An estimated 12,000 people live in Rabiya.

“The security in Rabiya is very good right now because of the Iraqi army, Iraqi police and the coalition forces,” Mr. Kahoush, a Sunni who has been mayor for three years, said. “The security is very good here. There’s not a lot going on.”

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