Iraq: August 28, 2005


Many Sunni Arabs are getting fed up with the terrorism, and lack of order in Sunni Arab areas. The contrast between the poverty stricken Sunni Arab areas, and the peaceful, and increasingly prosperous Kurdish and Shia Arab zones, is growing, and very obvious. Sunni Arab tribes are taking sides, and going to war with each other over the issue of working with the government, or supporting the terrorists. Thats part of the problem with the deadlock over the new constitution. The other problem is that many Sunni Arabs really believe that they represent the majority of the population. Even those Sunni Arabs who know better, believe that the Sunni Arabs deserve more power, and oil income, than their 20 percent of the population justifies. The fact that Sunni Arabs have called the shots for centuries is something the Sunni Arabs just cannot give up, or at least not give up easily. At the same time, Sunni Arabs appear to be clueless when it comes to confronting their blood soaked past, and the fact that they grabbed most of the oil money for the past half century. Too many Sunni Arabs believe that reality does not apply to them.

The major source of Sunni Arab terrorists is Syria, where terrorists can fly into the country and easily get across the border into Iraq. On the Syrian border, the biggest problem border guards have are tribal relationships, equipment shortages, corruption and lack of training. All of these are making it possible for Islamic terrorists to cross into Iraq, along with weapons and munitions. 

The tribes along the Syrian frontier often have people on both sides of the border. This was not a problem when most of the region belonged to the Turkish empire. But in the 1920s, the new masters, the French and British, drew national borders, with the line often going through tribal areas. This made it easier for the smugglers, who quickly realized that national borders meant taxes to be paid on goods crossing the borders, unless the goods traveled on the backs of smugglers donkeys. People are smuggled as well. Earlier this year, Syria was compelled to stop allowing Islamic radicals to cross the border. The smugglers get them across for about $200 a head. 

The newly reconstituted border guards are short of radios, sensors (night vision goggles, motion sensors, searchlights), weapons, vehicles, food and fuel. Part of this is just the getting everyone everything while the border guard force is rapidly built from nothing. Saddams border guard was pretty corrupt and incompetent, and no great loss. A new one is still being formed. 

But a major reason for the material shortages is corruption. An old Iraqi tradition is that, at every level of the bureaucracy, the guy in charge takes a cut of the budget. Not a lot of the money gets down to the  individual border guard level. Cracking down on the corruption has been viewed as something of an unnatural act. Iraqis are still split on the corruption issue. Many Iraqis believe that eliminating corruption, in an abstract sense, is a good thing. But when it comes down to the their level, and leaving a bribe on the table, there is much less enthusiasm for clean government. But the American advisors are rubbing everyones noses into the results, pointing out that the border guards are ill-equipped because Iraqi officials up the line stole the money. Many Iraqis are not happy with having this pointed out to them, but most make the connection and accept the fact that there is a problem that only Iraqis can solve.

The lack of training is a growing problem because, increasingly, young Iraqis with no prior military experience are joining the security forces. In the 1990s, not all Iraqis were drafted into the military. In the 1980s, just about every male, that was physically able, went in. If nothing else, you learned how to handle an AK-47, wear the uniform and deal with military discipline. But now, most of the recruits are totally unfamiliar with military life, much less the special skills required for border guards. The Iraqis never had well trained border guards, so foreigners have to be brought in to train what is, in effect, the first professional border guards Iraq has ever had. 

The Saddam era border guards operated out of bases, usually little forts, on the border. These forts were 25-30 kilometers apart, and contained about three dozen border guards at any one time. In some areas, there are additional outposts every four kilometers. These men manned the crossing points, on main roads, near their fort, as well as the outposts, and patrolled the roadless areas as well. But in the mountainous areas especially, it was difficult to prevent smugglers from slipping through at night. The border guards often made deals with the local smugglers, collecting a small fee for each cargo they allowed to go through the checkpoints, or the nearby hills. Some of the new border guards are eager to revive this old custom. 

The effectiveness of the border guard depends on the officers, many of whom are new to this kind of work. Finding men with experience as officers during Saddams rule, who are really, really down on corruption, is difficult. If the corruption is allowed to creep back in, the border guard becomes useless. Corrupt border guards simply pass around a price list, showing what it costs to get anything past the guards. This allows criminals and terrorists to carry on. However, many Iraqis are hostile to the current al Qaeda and Sunni Arab terrorism, and inclined to pass up the bribes. For the moment, anyway. Easy money from corrupt practices is so ingrained in Iraqi culture, that is seems, to many Iraqis, as an unnatural act to pass up the money.


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