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U.S. wary of cross-border infiltration into Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Now comes the hard part.

With the declaration that major combat has ended in Iraq, U.S.-led forces face another low-level but potentially important conflict: the spread of regional influences in the country's north and along its borders.

Neighboring countries Iran, Turkey and Syria have interests in Iraq that they would like to protect. Inside northern Iraq, Kurdish political parties are striving to guard and perhaps expand power bases.

Almost since they reached northern Iraq last month, coalition forces have seen steady signs of what they consider cross-border infiltration. U.S. military leaders in Iraq downplay the scale of those activities, but say they could pose a threat that can destabilize certain areas of the country.

"The surrounding countries have indicated that they want their interests to be served by the new Iraqi government so they want to posture to have influence," Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commanding general of the U.S. Army's V Corps, said in an interview last week.

"It could become a destabilizing factor if it was left to go too far or if the Iraqis paid too much attention to it," Wallace said.

Keeping Iraq's neighbors out of its affairs may be a necessary component of military rule. Over time, it may be impossible, judging from the region's history.

"It's not necessarily anti-American or pure mischief or power projection that these countries be involved," said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "They cannot help but have some involvement because they have had years and years of connections with Iraq."

The most obvious flash points lie along Iraq's eastern border with Iran, stretching from the southern marshes around Basra, along Diyala province, to the Kurdish region in the north.

Ruled by hard-line Shiites, Iran is seeking to align with Iraq's majority Shiite population.

It provided refuge and funding to the once-exiled Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest group to oppose former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his regime. SCIRI's leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, returned to Iraq on Saturday and outlined his plan for an Islamic government.

Iran also has given training and equipment to the Badr Brigade, SCIRI's paramilitary group, ostensibly to counter the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations that Saddam sheltered for two decades. The MEK on Saturday agreed to turn over all its weapons and put its 6,000 members under coalition control.

Officials have received reports that the Badr Brigade was collecting material to use as anti-American propaganda in the region. Badr forces also have been recruiting in Baghdad and circulating flyers urging Iraqis there to oppose American-led forces.

Turkey also has indicated that it wants to protect a related ethnic population in Iraq, the Turkmen. Turkmen and local Arabs have been evicted from their homes by returning Kurds who were driven out by Saddam.

Turkey also wants to prevent Kurds from carving out an independent state and emboldening the Kurdish population in Turkey to break away.

So it wasn't surprising when American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne caught 12 Turkish special forces troops on April 22 trying to enter Kirkuk, a home to many Turkmen. The Turkish soldiers were thought to be seeking information from the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a local political party, and to give it aid.

"We're walking a fine line with another NATO country," said Maj. Robert Walter, a military intelligence analyst with V Corps.

Some of the Turkish special forces soldiers were in Kirkuk and were being allowed to go out if they gave advance notice and were monitored.

"Turkey is concerned about the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism," Wallace said during his interview. "I'm sure there is someone on the Turkish General Staff who thinks it's a good idea to have some eyes and ears."

The Turkish government informed the United States that it planned to send its diplomats overland through northern Iraq to re-establish an embassy in Baghdad.

Concerns about Syria eased after diplomatic progress was made during Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent visit to the country, Walter said.

U.S. military forces were manning several border crossings, but do not have a concentrated presence in the region. The greatest threat there, Walter said, comes from bandits and smugglers bringing weapons, drugs and fuel into Iraq. Vehicles have been seen leaving the country with fuel and returning with satellite dishes, he said.

Palestinians, who formerly benefited from Saddam's largesse, are believed to have left the country now that they no longer have his support. But in their place, hard-line Wahabbists, Muslim fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia, have moved into several Iraqi cities. Wallace said he is concerned about such Muslim fundamentalists who preach hatred of the United States.

"Groups like al-Qaida had a very intricate web of connections with other (Muslim) fundamentalists," he said. "It's something we keep an eye on."

American forces largely destroyed a group affiliated with al-Qaida, Ansar al Islam, which had controlled a small corner of Kurdistan along the Iranian border. American military officials believe remnants of the organization are trying to regroup in Iran.

Some American observers even distrust some seemingly benign aid delegations. So far, traditional U.S. allies from the Italians to the Canadians have offered generous assistance to Iraq without arousing suspicion about their motives. Kuwait and other Gulf states have contributed medical supplies and other humanitarian aid, as have Jordan and Saudi Arabia.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.