BAGHDAD, Iraq—After months of blaming foreign fighters for terror attacks, American officials unveiled a $300 million plan Saturday to beef up border enforcement along Iraq's porous 2,260-mile frontier by adding more forces, sensors and computer tracking of visitors.
Iran comes first. U.S. and Iraqi authorities will slam shut 16 eastern border crossings next week, leaving just three entry points for millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims and other would-be guests. Syrian border changes come next.
"Foreign terrorists are present in Iraq. The numbers are not known with precision, but recent attacks and their continuing presence underscores the importance of improving security at Iraq's borders," said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. overseer here as he announced a blueprint to double Iraq's trained Border Police to 16,000.
Border security along Iraq's six-nation frontier—comparable to the U.S.-Mexico border—imploded a year ago in the dwindling days of Saddam Hussein's rule.
First, U.S. Special Forces and other coalition soldiers infiltrated across mountains from Turkey and desert from Jordan to seize strategic sites and advance on Baghdad even before the war began. Then, uncounted foreign Arabs reputedly tied to al-Qaida infiltrated, probably from Iran and Syria.
Coalition officials mostly swatted away questions about why it took the United States so long to turn to border enforcement. But Dan Senor, Bremer's spokesman, said the Americans were partly reluctant to tighten the border with Iran because Shiite pilgrims poured across after Saddam fell to pray freely at their spiritual centers in Najaf and Karbala for the first time in more than 30 years.
Next week, 16 border posts will be closed along the Iranian border, leaving just three legal entry points to Iraq, Senor said. Fewer visitors would be allowed, and those who are will get shorter visa stays than the traditional three months.
By mid 2005, immigration officers will increase to 1,000—today Iraq has 86—to track visitors' arrivals and departures through a computerized identification system called PISCES.
Some Iraqis have complained bitterly about border problems. During Saddam's rule, few foreigners dared infiltrate. Some Iraqis blame this year's suicide bombings of civilians and booby trap attacks on military patrols on al-Qaida outsiders—not a homegrown resistance—and say the American invasion let the foreigners inside.
"We recognize the challenges inherent in trying to secure Iraq's porous borders," Bremer said. "But we must continue to do more. We owe this to the Iraqi people."
Coalition intelligence has found no Iranian link to the twin March 2 suicide attacks at Shiite shrines in Karbala and Baghdad that killed at least 181 Muslims, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief. U.S. officials planned to fix the border even before the bloodshed stoked resentment toward U.S. troops.
Senior U.S. officials also said Saturday that they were bracing for more suicide bombings and other large-scale attacks around the March 19 anniversary of the start of the war and the April 9 fall of Baghdad.
The $300 million comes from a special congressional allocation to rebuild Iraq, Kimmitt said. Authorities will spend $150 million on equipment, including 300 new trucks to patrol the border, $104 million in frontier construction, and $46 million training guards.
Kimmitt also said that of the 10,000 Arabs in coalition custody, only 150 were foreigners. There was "no substantial evidence" that foreign fighters had arrived through authorized Iraqi border posts, he said, as opposed to slipping into the country across thousands of miles of rugged frontier, mountains and desert, marshland and the Shaat al-Arab waterway.
Neither the general nor Senor would say Saturday how many of the 16,000 future border guards would be recycled from Saddam's border police, who operated in an era when anyone caught infiltrating from neighboring Muslim countries risked harsh punishment by the regime.
Also Saturday, military sources said, two U.S. troops were killed when a roadside bomb exploded during an early morning patrol in Tikrit, once Saddam's hometown. Five others were wounded.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.