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Border forts used in attempt to stop foreign insurgents, arms flow
FORT TARIK, Iraq -- They look more like motels in rural America than forts in a war zone, but a string of low concrete structures are the U.S.-led coalition's first line of defense against foreign fighters trying to sneak into Iraq from Iran and Syria.
The United States has built or renovated nearly 260 forts along Iraq's borders, and installations like Fort Tarik south of the Iranian city of Mehran have taken on new importance because of the showdown with Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.
The small fort sits within sight of two Iranian border outposts, and a tour of Tarik on Sunday showed just how tough it can be for coalition forces to adequately patrol a remote desert landscape without a nearby town or village.
Border patrols based at Fort Tarik recently captured several suspected Iranian intelligence agents who had crossed into Iraq, a U.S. official said.
Fort Tarik patrols also have found supplies being smuggled into Iraq for making the insurgents' deadliest weapon: roadside bombs with fragmented projectiles that can penetrate heavily fortified vehicles in U.S. and Iraqi convoys.
"We are very concerned about this border, given the capacity of the roadside bomb components that are being smuggled across it," said U.S. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who participated in the tour of Tariq and nearby Fort Karmashia. "We feel an urgent need to stop them."
Chiarelli, America's second-ranking general in Iraq, said the coalition has long been concerned about insurgents entering Iraq from neighbors such as Syria, Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the smuggling of weapons such as AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
But he said Iraq's outposts on Iran's frontier have taken on a new importance "because we're concerned about the rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program."
Chiarelli would not elaborate. But the presence of the forts serves as a reminder of the American military presence on Iraq's western flank. The forts also could prevent Iran from sending agents into Iraq to stir up trouble alongside pro-Iranian Shiite militias as a response to American pressure on Tehran.
The U.S. and other Western nations have accused Iran of secretly planning to use its nuclear power program to produce weapons, prompting angry and defiant reactions from Iran's religious Shiite government. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed only at generating electricity.
The United States is backing attempts by Britain and France to draw up a U.N. resolution declaring Iran in violation of international law if it does not suspend uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity or, if sufficiently processed, the materials for atomic weapons.
Chiarelli said it took "a huge U.S.-led effort" to get Iraq's 258 border forts up and running, and the coalition is trying to better train, equip and coordinate the security efforts of Iraqi forces at the outposts.
The U.S. military clearly decided to showcase Fort Tarik because it is in a relatively peaceful area of the Iraq-Iranian border.
Partially manned since late 2005, the fort is a two-story concrete building with two small towers on each side. Painted beige, the fort contains a ground floor with four ceiling fans, two officer rooms, three sleeping rooms for guards and an attached armory. An inside staircase leads to an open rooftop surrounded by a low concrete wall.
If it weren't for the dirt berm topped with barbed wire that surrounds the building, the fort would look like a small budget hotel or private home to many observers.
Fort Tarik's roughly 60 Iraqi security officials were drawn from a local Shiite tribe and some may even be related to Shiites living on the other side of the border in Iran, said U.S. Maj. Vic Lindenmeyer, a top official in Iraq's border security program.
Smuggling is common in the area at night, he said, but many of the people caught by the fort's guards are poor illegal immigrants. Some are entering Iraq to visit Shiite religious shrines in Karbala and Najaf.
U.S. and Ukrainian forces were on hand Sunday to train the Iraqi guards in issues as basic as getting enough fuel for their vehicles so they can patrol the border often enough, Lindenmeyer said.