U.S. forces are building a forward-operations base in Iraq just a few kilometers from the border with Iran. The $5 million project is aimed at improving border security and is part of a broader U.S. effort to stop alleged Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents.
The plan is similar to the U.S. strategy elsewhere in Iraq. It calls for U.S.-led coalition troops to help build up Iraq's border infrastructure as well to train Iraqi forces that eventually would take over border-security operations.
But the task is a difficult one. The 1,500-kilometer-long border between Iraq and Iran is crisscrossed with ancient smuggling routes. And supplying Shi'ite militias in Iraq is now thought to be a major source of income for some tribes along the border.
The top U.S. military commander In Iraq, General David Petraeus, said on September 12 that he has solid evidence -- including statements from alleged Iranian agents that have been captured -- proving that Iran has been involved in lethal attacks in Iraq. Petraeus warned the U.S. Congress that the United States already is fighting what he called a "proxy war" with Iran.
He accused Iran of helping Iraqi insurgents by providing them with weapons -- including armor-piercing technology for roadside bombs known as "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs).
"I'm not blaming Iran for all that is going wrong in Iraq," Petraeus said in his congressional testimony. "What I stated is, in fact, what we have learned about Iranian activity. And it certainly has contributed to a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support when it comes to the explosively formed projectiles -- a signature item provided by the Iranians."
U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner has accused the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of providing special combat training to Iraqi insurgents in Iran.
The "Quds Force, along with Hizballah instructors, train approximately 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time, sending them back to Iraq organized into these special groups," Bergner said recently. "They were being taught how to use EFPs, mortars, rockets, as well as intelligence, sniper, and kidnapping operations."
U.S. military officials say they are particularly concerned about a 150-kilometer stretch of border to the southeast of Baghdad in the mostly Shi'ite governorate of Wasit.
There, near the town of Zurbatiya, the U.S. is constructing the centerpiece of its new border-control strategy -- a forward-operations base called Combat Outpost Shocker. The facility is being built just 7 kilometers from the Iranian border -- which would make it the closest U.S. military facility to Iran. It is scheduled to become operational in November.
Patrolling The Border
The outpost would be much smaller than the full-fledged U.S. military bases that supported the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. Such U.S. military bases are staffed by thousands of troops and include hospitals as well as landing strips for aircraft carrying supplies and providing air support for combat operations.
Combat Outpost Shocker would not have a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft. And it is designed to house only about 200 soldiers. But the $5 million project would provide direct logistical support to soldiers who patrol the border -- including the equipment needed for a military radio-communications network.
Colonel Mark Mueller, the commander of the border transition team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, says surveillance equipment at the outpost eventually will allow border guards to intercept the communications of weapons smugglers.
Combat Outpost Shocker
"As we get more coalition capability down here, we will be able to develop some of that capability," Mueller said. "We can get some of the cell-phone conversations between the buyer and the seller, times [of transport], types of trucks. And we're getting better at that all the time."
Some 300 trucks now cross the border from Iran to Iraq each day near the future outpost. U.S. forces are able to fully search only three or four of those vehicles.
But the location of the new outpost means U.S.-led coalition troops would no longer have to take convoys on a dangerous 80-kilometer journey just to reach the border.
The initial plans call for about 100 soldiers from the republic of Georgia to be garrisoned at Combat Outpost Shocker along with about 70 U.S. soldiers. Some agents from the U.S. Border Patrol also would be based there.
Georgia sent about 2,000 of its troops to the Wasit Governorate in June to help to patrol the city of Al-Kut and the border with Iran.
Although those soldiers have not yet begun to patrol the border, Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service their main assignment is to control arms smuggling.
"There is information available which shows that certain weapons are smuggled from Iran into Iraq via this [Wasit] governorate," Kezerashvili said. "Currently, there is no reaction to this. But the Georgian soldiers will have to react to this, which means that a certain level of tension will be triggered."
Analysts see the new base as part of a bigger struggle for influence in Iraq between the United States and Iran.
Iran denies it is stoking violence in Iraq. But experts say there is no doubt that Iran's influence on trade and politics in Iraq has grown since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The U.S. military said last month that it was tracking about 50 members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the border area south of Baghdad.
Evidence that supports those allegations also strengthen previous U.S. claims that Iran is meddling in Iraq -- a charge that has the U.S. government considering whether to blacklist the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.