Weakened gov't, US troop withdrawal make Iraq wary of neighbor and uneasy ally Iran

QUTAIBA BORDER FORT, Iraq (AP) — On any map, this castle-like fort is located in Iran. But war, time and drifting desert sands have blurred the border, and for now, Iraqi guards stoutly defend Qutaiba as theirs.

The guards are part of a beefed-up presence on both sides of a long, porous and ill-defined border. Iraq is building four new border forts in Wasit province alone, which abuts Iran for 116 miles (186 kilometers). Iran also is adding forts, as evidenced by half-built structures surrounded by scaffolding that can be seen from Iraq.

The increased tension is a result of Iraq's uncertain situation, with its government in limbo and American troops leaving. At an insecure time, Iraqi wariness of Iranian aggression is on the rise, especially after two major Iranian incursions in less than a year.

"The region here is like a jungle: the strong eat the weak," said Iraqi Brig. Gen. Sami Wahab, who oversees the nearby Zurbatiyah port of entry, the largest official pedestrian land crossing between Iraq and Iran.

"If the Iraqi government keeps going backward and reaches the level where you can say it's a weak country, then there's a good chance of Iran coming in," Sami said. "But we don't have cannons to respond; we don't have jets to bomb. That's why the Iraqi people are scared."

Iran and Iraq are formerly warring neighbors that have settled over the last several years into an uneasy relationship. Few experts expect a full-scale invasion reminiscent of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980, as both nations have their hands full with domestic turmoil.

Shiite-run governments in both Baghdad and Tehran have paved the way toward normalized relations since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and Iraq has since given greater freedom to Iranian pilgrims to visit holy Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

But even if they are not the precursor to a full-scale invasion, the incursions are a way for Iran to show its dominance in the region and remind Iraq that while the U.S. military is leaving soon, Iran is here to stay.

The U.S. for its part calls Iran a serious threat — one that is boosting efforts to fund, train, supply and shelter insurgents as the U.S.-led war that began in 2003 winds down. A senior intelligence official in Washington, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk about the sensitive issue, expressed concern that Iran will supply anyone, terror group or common criminal, with bomb-making parts or other weapons to create the image of instability in Iraq.

A political analyst at Tehran's Azad University said that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq portrayed itself as leader of the Arab world, leading to tension with Iran. But if Iraq's government remains weak, Iran will not go on the offensive, he said.

"Iran already has a big amount of influence in Iraq," analyst Ahmad Bakhshayesh said in an interview. "So it does not need any offensive measures in the borders."

However, Iraq is fiercely protective of its sovereignty, and many officials believe Iran is trying to take advantage of its weakened neighbor. Asked why, Maj. Raad Awad scoffed.

"Iran likes to occupy land. They want to keep expanding their country into the Mideast," said Awad at the Saad border fort in northern Wasit.

The two Iranian incursions — especially an oil well takeover in Iraq's southern Maysan province — spurred Iraqis to seek U.S. training on how to fend off an invasion or prevent one from occurring in the first place.

In that first incursion last December, Iranian forces held oil well No. 4 in the al-Fakkah field for days before pulling back without a fight or without much opposition by Iraqi officials. The oil field, located about 200 miles (about 320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, is one of Iraq's largest but part of it lies on land claimed by each country.

Watching the debacle unfold, U.S. Lt. Col. Chris Kennedy said Iraqi border police at Qutaiba loaded up with extra rocket launchers, machine guns and other arms to defend themselves should their fort come under a similar assault.

"They actually truly thought, 'Hey, this might happen.' So I think they saw it as a real threat," said Kennedy.

The second incursion came in May when Iranian forces shelled a northern Iraqi Kurdish village and killed a 14-year-old girl while pursuing a Kurdish rebel group Tehran calls a terrorist threat. The mountainous area also lies in disputed territory, and Iranian forces began building structures and paving roads there — incensing the Kurdish government but largely going unchecked by Baghdad.

Border smuggling of anything from honey to tobacco to weapons is not uncommon, especially in Iraq's southern marshlands where the winding waterways make it all but impossible to tell where Iran ends and Iraq begins.

For at least a year, Baghdad and Tehran have been trying to decide how to redraw the 906-mile (1,458 kilometers) border. The last internationally recognized border was drawn in 1975, but it has only been loosely followed since the Iran-Iraq war. The boundaries are so vague that U.S. pilots follow Iraqi border forts to keep from flying into Iranian airspace.

In March, a team of generals and engineers from both countries began walking the border to mark it, an arduous process that doesn't include the U.S. It's not clear when the surveyors will be done, and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi said in an interview that no major results had been achieved so far.

He denied the delay was caused by Iraqi leaders' failure to seat a new government six months after parliamentary elections.

Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, who commands Iraq's military, says his nation will not be able to fully defend its borders until 2020 — underscoring what he calls a need for U.S. forces to remain past a 2011 deadline for a full American troop withdrawal.

The U.S. is selling tanks and F-16 fighter jets to Iraq as part of a $13 billion equipment package to help its fledgling security forces protect the nation's sovereignty alone.

It's not clear when Iraqis will get the jets, however, and the 140 M1 tanks that began to be delivered to Iraq's army last month will be housed at least an hour away from the border. U.S. officials said that was deliberately done to prevent a tense atmosphere reminiscent of the demilitarized zone delineating North and South Korea.

The U.S. is trying to impress on Iraq that diplomacy — and not firepower — might be a better initial route should another incursion occur. But along the border, pockmarked with mine fields and littered with rusted mortar casings and other shrapnel left over from the Iran-Iraq war, suspicion reigns.

"They might come across the border because they are a strong country," said 1st Lt. Hassan Faisal. "Iran doesn't want Iraq to be a strong country."

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Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.