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In northern Iraq, patrolling, enforcing border rugged job

Associated Press
Published February 13, 2005

BASHMAGH, Iraq - Three days or so each week, Sabriyah Tawfiq walks up the snow-covered mountain near her home and crosses the border into Iran, climbing down the other side to catch a taxi to the nearest town. There, she sells the tea leaves, bars of soap and bottles of shampoo she has smuggled across in a cloth bundle.

Leaving her house at 7 a.m., when weather permits, Tawfiq is usually back home in Iraq by 2 p.m., in time for lunch with her children.

As the White House denies allegations that American spies are crossing into Iran from here to search for nuclear sites, Tawfiq is proof that the border in this rugged northern Kurdish region of Iraq is plenty easy to navigate - for those who know how.

Iraqi guards here say they have increased security at the Iranian border since the war, try to prevent illegal crossings and know nothing about any U.S.-run covert operations into Iran.

They do acknowledge, though, that relations with Iranian border guards on the other side are poor.

And in a trip last week to the region, it was not hard to find smugglers and ordinary Iraqi and Iranian Kurds with relatives on both sides who cross regularly here without visas or passports.

"That's the only thing I know how to do to bring money to the family," said Tawfiq, a 40-year-old widow whose youngest child is 10.

She wears Kurdish men's baggy pants tucked into her knee-high rubber boots when she makes the trip over the snow-covered Qochi Sultan Mountain and then on by taxi to the Iranian town of Marivan.

Tawfiq has been caught six times since she became a smuggler two years ago. Security has improved somewhat, she knows from firsthand experience: Before, the Iranian guards accepted bribes when she was caught.

Now, they confiscate her goods - which she usually sells in Iran for about $6 - and make her pay a penalty.

Other smugglers carry cigarettes or alcohol, which is forbidden in Iran, or electronic goods and machinery parts. Those coming from Iran bring fruits and vegetables to sell in the Iraqi town of Panjwayn.

According to an article published last month in New Yorker magazine, U.S. officials have been sending covert reconnaissance missions into Iran from here since last summer to identify possible future military targets inside Iran. White House officials called the report by Seymour Hersh inaccurate. Pentagon officials said the article was filled with mistakes but did not deny its basic point.

U.S. military forces based in the Iraqi town of Panjwayn visit the seven Iraqi border posts in this area about three times a week to check cross-border movements and make sure there are no infiltrators from Iran, said Lt. Saber Rashid Saleh, commander of the Iraqi border police in the Bashmagh area.

"We can only tell you what we can see with our own eyes," Saleh said. "And we have not seen them cross into Iran. . . . If the Americans come to our area, the area commander in charge of this post travels with them on their surveillance. So if they go into Iran, it's not from our post."

His deputy, Noshirwan Mohammed Amin, said that when the American military comes here, the soldiers focus 75 percent of their time on checking border posts, including buildings and other facilities.

"We don't know what the other 25 percent of their work is," he said.

When American troops first arrived here after the invasion, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a paramilitary force that controls Iran's border regions, were apprehensive, Saleh said. So he and his men went over to reassure the Iranians there was no cause for concern.

"But they said as long as we were with the Americans, they would refuse to talk to us," he said. "So we and the Iranians have no contact."

Only Iranian Kurds are allowed to legally cross into Iraqi Kurdistan at this border point. Border guards say about 50 of them enter Iraq every day. Other Iranian ethnic groups normally must cross from border posts farther south.

To go legally into Iran from here, a traveler must cross the narrow Nawkalan River and walk or drive about 50 yards before reaching the Iranian border post.

The Iraqi border guards do stop illegal crossings. Last month, they arrested three Afghans carrying fake Iranian papers and trying to enter Iraq, Saleh said. "Most infiltrations take place at night. So we have to be very vigilant. We worry about all Iraq, not just explosions taking place in Kurdistan," Saleh said.

Saleh believes the establishment of the Iraqi border police a year ago also reduced the flow of Iranian extremists into Iraq that started immediately after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

Plans are in place to add 10 more border posts in this area and increase the number of Iraqi border police from the current 400 to 700.

Yet to most Kurds venturing between Iraq and Iran, the region remains simply "Kurdistan," all one country with a similar landscape, language, culture and music, with many marriages between Kurds on the two sides.

[Last modified February 13, 2005, 01:09:06]

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