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Smugglers taking staples from Iraq frustrate U.S. border patrols

HUSAYBAH, Iraq _The van was proof of smuggler Ahmed Salim's crime. At this checkpoint on the Syrian border, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi customs officials found 10 cartons of Marlboro cigarettes tucked in the engine.

About a dozen wool blankets and a large can of soy oil donated by the United Nations World Food Program to needy Iraqis were hidden in boxes on the back seat. Underneath the chassis was a secret fuel tank with 192 gallons of gasoline. It was enough to make customs director Ali Hassan lash out at Salim.

"He's going to be made an example, so all the other drivers won't make the same mistake," said Hassan, shooting a stern look at the anguished driver. "If they love their country, they shouldn't be selling these goods across the border."

American and Iraqi officials, fearful that such small-time smuggling could shatter the fragile Iraqi economy and increase resentment of the U.S.-led coalition, have boosted efforts to stop the illicit trade, especially in border towns such as Husaybah, where sneaking goods into Syria has become an art form and resentment of American troops runs deep.

Smugglers siphon away necessities such as fuel, blankets and livestock that are banned for export by the U.S.-led coalition—and sell them for higher prices in Syria. Fuel can be sold for eight times as much in Syria, which doesn't have its own oil supplies. Sheep sell for triple what they're worth in Iraq.

Some smugglers steal humanitarian supplies or sell large quantities of consumer goods, which could cause shortages and inflate prices in Iraq.

"If there are shortages, people all over Iraq will get more angry," Hassan said.

In Husaybah, American troops have faced constant assaults from guerrillas who oppose the U.S. occupation. Most are Saddam loyalists, but American commanders said they thought that smugglers, angry at the crackdown, also were financing or participating in the attacks.

Mortars have been lobbed into the border-crossing checkpoint where troops of Dragon Company, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based in Fort Carson, Colo., search vehicles and monitor the border.

"Perhaps it's to protect some of their business," said Lt. Col. Greg Reilly, the U.S. commander in charge of Husaybah and the al Khaim border region.

As the sun comes up, hundreds of vehicles filled with goods line up at the gates to cross into the dusty Syrian town of al Bukemal. Before they can enter, they have to pass the scrutiny of American soldiers and U.S.-trained Iraqi border guards.

On a large, white board at the entrance, there's a long list of items that the coalition has banned or restricted from being taken out of the country. They include sugar, tea, imported rice, imported vegetable oils and fats, lentils, chickpeas, dried beans, milk powder, infant formula, yellow corn—all commodities that Iraqis use daily. Goats, sheep, cows and female camels are also on the list. So are bar soap and detergent.

Iraqis can't take more than three wool blankets per person out of the country, customs officials said. They can't carry more than 96 gallons of fuel, enough to take them from Baghdad to Syria and back.

"If we don't do this, this will affect the Iraqi economy. Our country in one year will be empty," said Jamal Farhan, a customs official. "Everything will be smuggled to Syria and other countries."

Suspicious vehicles are searched thoroughly. Trunks and hoods are popped open. Boxes and bags are taken out and searched. There are no computers, so identification papers are checked against lists of names of suspected smugglers.

The smugglers use various tactics to sneak goods past the checkpoints. American soldiers have found fuel tanks shaped as car seats or tucked behind large speakers. In one van, tanks were hidden behind wood paneling, turning the vehicle into a potential bomb.

At night, soldiers in Abrams tanks park along the border and stare into the darkness through night-vision systems that can detect a fox 2 miles away. Herders typically smuggle sheep under the cover of darkness, and goods can be carried swiftly into Syria across the nearby Euphrates River. It's also the best time for insurgents to sneak in and out of Iraq.

Corruption is a huge concern, Hassan said. There's a long history of graft by poorly paid guards at this border crossing. Now, the coalition pays them $60 to $100 per month, which is a decent wage. But there have been delays in paying them, so goods confiscated from smugglers are sold to pay the guards and to give them small bonuses, Hassan said.

The absence of laws makes fighting smuggling difficult. Customs officials, border guards and local police are afraid of arresting smugglers, fearing retribution and even death. If they are brave enough to nab them, it's unlikely the smugglers will spend a day behind bars.

"Judges are afraid of putting smugglers behind jail. They'll get threatened or killed," Hassan said. "And most of our employees are from Baghdad. It's easy to kill them, too. They don't have the tribal connections here to protect them."

The most they can do is confiscate the goods and place a stamp on identification papers marking the owner as a smuggler, Hassan said. But that doesn't stop the smugglers from trying again and again.

"The same faces come every day," Hassan said. "Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they get caught."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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