Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's pre-eminent Shi'a cleric issued a religious decree today banning illegal entry into the country.
In the decree, seen by the French news agency AFP, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says it is illegal to enter Iraq "other than by official border posts." He says it is also illegal "to take part in or profit from money made from smuggling."
Al-Sistani accused the U.S.-led administration in Iraq of failing to properly protect the country's borders following the devastating 2 March bombings in Baghdad and the holy Shi'a city of Karbala.
Following those attacks, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, announced that the coalition would step up its efforts to strengthen the security of Iraq's borders. Speaking one day after the blasts, Bremer said: "We are strengthening border protection to counter [terrorism]. There are 8,000 border police on duty today and more are on the way. We are adding hundreds of vehicles and doubling border police staffing in selected areas. The United States has committed $60 million to support border security."
Bremer said it is "increasingly apparent" that "a large part of terrorism" comes from outside Iraq. The coalition blames foreign militants for this week's bombings, which killed at least 181 people and injured many more. The attacks happened during ceremonies marking Ashura, the highlight of the Shi'a religious calendar.
"He does not ask you any questions. You pay him his money, and he takes you through."
Controlling the country's borders will be a challenge. Iraq has a 1,500-kilometer land border with Iran, more than 800 kilometers of land border with Saudi Arabia, 600 kilometers with Syria, 350 kilometers with Turkey, and 180 kilometers with Kuwait. Most of Iraq's borders twist through desert or semi-desert regions.
Hiwa Othman is a coordinating editor of the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which recently investigated the situation on Iraq's borders. What they discovered, Othman says, is that Iraq's borders are virtually unpatrolled.
Speaking to RFE/RL from Baghdad, Othman says only Kurdish forces in the north are doing an adequate job of policing the border. "Iraq's borders are extremely porous from all sides. The Kurdish side of the border is mountainous and, again, it can be tough to control it, but in the north there are Kurdish forces. The Kurdish forces are indigenous to the area, and they are more equipped and more trained, basically, to keep the borders," he said.
Othman says Iraq's borders with Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are poorly guarded. He says he recently visited Iraq's borders with Kuwait and Syria and was shocked to see how easy it was to cross them.
After the Gulf War in 1991, Othman says Iraq's border with Kuwait was completely sealed. However, the situation radically changed last spring when U.S. troops invaded Iraq from Kuwait. "When the war happened, the U.S. Army opened nine gates in this completely sealed border for its troops to come in," he said. "They sent their troops, and they never bothered to close these gates down. So, these gates are completely open."
Today, Othman says, people move illegally across the Kuwaiti border into Iraq with relative ease. The situation is similar at the Syrian, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian borders, although Iraqi border guards police them, at least theoretically. The tribes living near these borders transport people into Iraq for money. It has become a lucrative business. The tribespeople involved do not ask questions.
"[Those who facilitate these illegal crossings] will take you to any Iraqi town on the other side of the border, no questions asked. You can take anything with you. You can have anyone with you. He does not ask you any questions. You pay him his money, and he takes you through," Othman said.
Analysts say Iraq's border with Iran is also badly controlled. Ali Reza Nourizadeh is the director of the Center for Arab-Iranian studies, a private institute in London. He says thousands of Iranians routinely cross the border as part of pilgrimages to the holy Shi'a towns of Karbala and Al-Najaf. The flow of travelers is not controlled, he says.
"[Iran] controls it in a way that nothing gets into Iran from Iraq. But, unfortunately, every day hundreds of Iranians are crossing the borders [into Iraq] -- among them people linked to the Revolutionary Guards, to Quds forces [a brigade of Revolutionary Guards specializing in covert actions], which is now responsible for Iraq, and also Ansar Al-Islam, the Kurdish fundamentalist group which has bases in Iran," Nourizadeh said.
Iranian television says an estimated 300,000 Iranians were in Iraq last week. Twenty-nine of them were killed during the bombings in Karbala and Baghdad. Iran's state radio announced yesterday that the border with Iraq had been sealed and that only those leaving Iraq to enter Iran would be permitted to cross.
New U.S. efforts to secure the borders may be too little, too late. Nourizadeh says many of those who are interested in fighting U.S. troops or attempting to destabilize the country have already crossed into Iraq. But "at least it might prevent more evil people from coming to Iraq," he said.
Othman says Iraqis alone cannot secure the country's borders and that even double the number of border guards would not be enough. He says Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia need to make greater efforts to guard their own borders with Iraq. He says these governments controlled their borders more or less efficiently, even when they had poor relations with Iraq during Saddam Hussein's regime.