April 18, 2003

Lack of control on Iraqi side of border with Iran means welcome mat is out for foreign influence

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

ARAFAT CHECKPOINT, Iraq-Iran Border (AP) _ A pack of stray dogs roams the empty border guard barracks on the road to this crossing, where the men who once guarded the frontier between two longtime enemy nations have vanished.

Only Iranian guards now control the border here. U.S. Marines have received orders to send patrols to the area, but not all the way to the frontier itself.

Despite high concern about foreign influence seeping into Iraq, the welcome mat is out by default.

“There’s a power vacuum over there and we haven’t occupied the ground,” said Lt. Col. Jean Malone, deputy operations officer for U.S. Marine Task Force Tarawa. “There’s no control on this side.”

There wasn’t a single U.S. military checkpoint Friday along the entire 80-kilometer (50-mile) road from the eastern city of Kut to the border. At the Arafat Checkpoint, Iranian border guards roamed freely to the Iraqi side, acting as if they were in charge of the area and quickly asking reporters to leave.

Dozens of Iraqis were waiting near the border, hoping to reunite with family members who had been deported to Iran during Saddam Hussein’s regime as part of his oppression of the majority Shiite Muslim population.

Hayder Ali was surrounded by a crowd of wailing, black-robed women _ relatives he hadn’t seen in 30 years of exile, some whom he’d never met before.

Ali expressed thanks to Iran, which he said provided him a home in Ilam, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border _ an experience that made him see what kind of government he would now like to see in his homeland.

“I hope to God there will be Islamic rule here in Iraq,” he said. “If it’s an Islamic republic, there won’t be any injustice.”

That belief is unsettling to U.S. forces, who have expressed concern about like-minded paramilitary forces sneaking into the country to take advantage of the political chaos that has followed Saddam’s fall.

Also at the checkpoint, inside a castle-like building with round turrets, bystanders said there was a representative of the Badr Corps _ the military wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, an Iranian-based Shiite group that opposes U.S. plans for creating a new Iraqi government.

A man in civilian clothes wandered around the border area with a brand-new walkie-talkie.

Traffic at the border can go both ways. One resident said 13 Syrians who had been in Kut to battle American forces left Iraq at the Arafat Checkpoint three days ago and were met by Syrian diplomats.

U.S. forces had said before entering Kut about a week ago that there were unconfirmed reports of possibly thousands of foreign fighters waiting for them, although they haven’t found or detained any.

Near the border in the village of Badra, a convoy of about 10 Humvees with U.S. troops _ armed with the M-4 assault rifles carried by elite Force Reconnaissance Marines or U.S. Army special forces _ whizzed through the streets Friday afternoon, waving to residents but not stopping.

A Shiite cleric who said he returned from Iran three weeks ago after two decades of exile claims control of Badra.

Sheikh Assad al-Faeli, sitting in the former city court building with two Kalashnikov-bearing guards behind him, claimed residents of the town had turned in all their weapons to his supporters _ but avoided answering where those arms now were.

Al-Faeli, who said he headed the Islamic Movement for Kurdish Shiites, said he thanked the United States for getting rid of Saddam and that American and Shiite blood was now mixed on Iraqi soil.

But echoing the sentiments of other Shiite clerics in the region, he said U.S. forces aren’t welcome to stay for an indefinite time.

“America has weapons, but the Iraqi people have principles,” he said. “If the United States lies and doesn’t keep its promises, there will be a jihad here and in all Arabic regions.”


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