By Neil Arun and Shorish Khalid
IRBIL and SULAIMANIYAH – An Iranian crackdown on smuggling along the Iraqi border has uncovered fissures and confusion in Baghdad’s policy towards perceived threats to its sovereignty.
Iraqi officials contacted for an Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) investigation disagreed sharply over the significance of recent Iranian incursions that have targeted smugglers in a remote, rugged part of the northern Kurdistan region.
Divisions focused on whether Iran’s action should be regarded as a grave violation of the sanctity of Iraq’s borders, or a minor infringement along an ill-defined frontier.
Officials also disagreed over whether responsibility for securing the frontier rested with the central government in Baghdad, or with the regional government in semi-autonomous Kurdistan. Some senior officials said they had been unaware of the incursions until interviewed by IWPR.
Accounts gathered by IWPR reporters in Iraqi Kurdistan indicate that Iran has stepped up the fight against smuggling beyond its frontiers.
Iranian security forces have regularly crossed hundreds of meters into Iraqi territory in border districts to the south and east of the city of Sulaimaniyah.
In the rural Penjwen district, Iranian guards have attacked makeshift depots, destroying smugglers’ stockpiles of contraband fuel, alcohol and luxury goods. Smugglers in the district also say they face the risk of gunfire, beatings and capture by Iranian forces inside Iraq.
IWPR discussed the reports of Iranian incursions with government and opposition leaders in Baghdad and in Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan region.
Officials in charge of border security for Kurdistan and for Iraq as a whole were also interviewed, along with Iranian diplomats in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.
None of the officials could confirm the existence of an agreement – formal or otherwise – that would permit Iran to pursue the smugglers inside Iraq.
The Iranian officials interviewed did not deny reports of incursions, but nor did they respond to them directly. All Iraqi officials interviewed said they disapproved in principle of any incursions by Iran.
However, Iraqi officials disagreed over who was ultimately required to take action over the violations, with the Kurdish government and the central government in Baghdad each suggesting the other side bore the brunt of the responsibility.
Moreover, there was sharp disagreement between government and opposition leaders in Baghdad over whether the incursions posed an immediate threat to Iraq’s sovereignty.
Schism over Iran
The lack of clarity and consensus over the border violations comes at a critical juncture in Iraq’s relationship with Iran, characterized currently by intense cooperation and fierce controversy.
Trade between the two countries is flourishing and security concerns are being addressed jointly. Tehran has mounted regular attacks just across the border with Iraq, targeting what it says are the bases of Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) guerillas. Though Iraq has complained about the attacks, it has ruled out a military response, instead disowning the rebels using its territory.
Points of friction remain. Border disputes triggered the long war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, and some have yet to be resolved. In late December, Iranian forces briefly occupied the Fakkah oilfield just inside Iraq. They left after a flurry of diplomatic activity and mutual assurances of a peaceful settlement to historic grievances.
In Baghdad, attitudes towards Tehran now polarize politics in a way that ties to Washington once did.
Iraq’s major Shi’ite Arab and Kurdish parties have historic relations with Iran, forged during years of opposition to Saddam Hussein. Some of their leaders regard Iran as a natural ally for their country.
Other Iraqi leaders – particularly Sunnis and relatively secular Shi’ites – are increasingly wary of the Shi’ite theocracy next door, and fear its influence will grow this year as the US withdraws the bulk of its forces.
“Iran does not respect the sovereignty and the will of the Iraqi people,” said Salman al-Jumaili, a legislator with the Iraqi National Movement, a secular opposition list challenging the government in elections in March.
“The future holds great danger for Iraq from its neighbor,” he said. “Iran does not need an agreement, formal or unspoken, [to mount incursions] because its actions are concealed by powerful actors in the government.”
A Kurdish opposition group also believes Iran’s allies in Iraq have downplayed border violations. “Some Iraqi forces that have good relations with Iran … do not want tension because of the border,” said Sardar Abdullah, a candidate for the Change list, which plans to challenge Kurdistan’s governing parties in the March election.
“The incursions have become normal, despite statements issued by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments,” Abdullah said. “They are a threat to the country’s sovereignty.”
In Baghdad, a senior member of Iraq’s most-powerful Shi’ite party rejected fears of a long-term threat from the Iranian incursions.
Reda Jawad Taqi, a top official from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, said Iran might carry out “limited” incursions – but these were most likely the work of “individual officers or soldiers”.
The ISCI is a major player in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which has overall responsibility for the border force. In the elections, the party plans to challenge Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition.
Taqi said he had not received specific reports of Iranian incursions at Penjwen and would not approve of them if they had indeed taken place. However, he said, “We believe Iran respects Iraq’s sovereignty.”
“I do not think Iran poses a threat to Iraq in the near or distant future because it has repeatedly said it wants to build relations based on common interests and economic cooperation,” he said.
Meanwhile, a senior official from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition insisted the government was not ignoring the incursions. “We do not deny that Iran may in some cases commit violations along the border. We are not happy with that,” Haider al-Abadi told IWPR.
However, he said, the border problems with Iran were complex and dated to the days of Saddam Hussein. Officials close to Maliki have said they want a joint border commission to solve the disputes. “The government wants to establish with Iran a good relationship based on strong mutual interests, but not at the expense of Iraqi sovereignty,” Abadi said.
Smugglers cry foul
The frontier at Penjwen has for decades been traversed by smugglers, playing cat-and-mouse with border guards as they bring cheap fuel into Iraq and take alcohol and luxury goods into Iran. Though Iranian security forces have long chased smugglers inside Iraq, reports from Penjwen say their tactics have become tougher.
Several smugglers said the Iranian crackdown had slowed the flow of contraband at once-bustling crossings, in some cases by more than 90% in recent years. Carriers who used to operate freely all day now reportedly only worked under cover of darkness.
Ahmed Faraj, the owner of a smugglers’ rest stop in Iraqi Kurdistan, said Iranian guards had crossed the border at Balikadar village in December and set fire to 80 horse-loads worth of luxury goods intended for Iran.
“They also killed two horses belonging to my relative,” Faraj said. “If we have our own government, how come we keep silent when Iran trespasses on our land?”
The border police office in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah confirmed Iranian guards had set fire to goods at Balikadar on December 3. The office’s records for the entire year of 2009, seen by IWPR, showed a total of 22 Iranian incursions in Penjwen and neighboring districts.
Iranian forces, sometimes in groups as large as 20, had carried out raids between 200 meters and two kilometers inside Iraqi territory. A typical incursion would last an hour and would see Iranian guards aim gunfire at the smugglers and destroy their property.
On December 26, Iranian forces captured a villager 300 meters inside Iraqi territory and took him across the border. The man was released a week later and returned to Iraq.
An Iranian diplomat in Irbil told IWPR that his country’s crackdown on the smugglers was lawful – and had the broad support of the Iraqi authorities.
“We deal with both sides: the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region,” said Azim Husseini, the Iran’s chief consul in Irbil. “The cooperation is diplomatic, political and military. Without both sides cooperating, the border cannot be protected.”
While Husseini did not respond directly to reports that Iranian guards had entered Iraqi territory, he maintained that his country’s forces had not broken any rules. He accused the smugglers of ignoring the border and said the onus lay on them to explain any violations.
“An official border crossing means two countries. Smugglers behave as if they are within one country,” Husseini said. “A policeman should not be asked why a crime was committed. We should ask the criminal instead.”
A senior official in charge of border security in Iraqi Kurdistan said his forces were not expected to retaliate against Iranian action except at times of war.
“The border checkpoints represent the country’s sovereignty – they are not there for fighting,” Major Shawkat Mohammed, a border guards’ commander, told IWPR.
Citing a theoretical scenario where Iranian guards attacked checkpoints with stones or gunfire, Mohammed said minor violations would not necessarily elicit a similar response from the Iraqi side.
“Only a report will be written stating what had happened and when,” he said, adding that foreign ministry officials in Baghdad would then be expected to take up the matter with their Iranian counterparts.
Border force over-stretched
Nuri Osman, head of the prime minister’s office at the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, agreed that the response to the border violations must come ultimately from the central government in Baghdad.
“The question of why Iraq allows these incursions should be put to the Iraqi government. It is the Iraqi government’s responsibility to protect the border from the south to the Kurdistan region,” he said.
However, Abadi, the official close to the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad, told IWPR that Kurdish authorities played a major part in securing their region’s frontiers.
“Border protection is a mutual responsibility, shared by the KRG and the Iraqi border force,” he said. “But some of the remote and mountainous areas may be secured by the Kurds better because they are on the ground and know the secrets of these places.”
Abadi also said Iraqi Kurdish border guards, as well as the Iraqi border force, were fully authorized “to repel any breach of Iraqi territory by any party”.
Senior officials in Irbil and Baghdad said they were unaware of specific reports of Iranian incursions in the Penjwen area.
Osman said any Iranian incursions in Kurdistan posed a grave threat to Iraq’s sovereignty but he had “no information about how far Iranian guards enter Kurdistan”. “They may have sometimes crossed the KRG border and might have taken smugglers’ possessions,” he said.
In Baghdad, the commander of Iraq’s border forces, Major General Mohsen al-Qaabi, said he was not aware of any Iranian incursions in Penjwen, though his office “cooperated closely” with Kurdish forces over border security.
“There may have been some trespassing from Iranian border guards but we have no official record of it or of the destruction of property in the region,” he told IWPR.
Qaabi added that Iraqi forces were working hard to secure the frontiers but were inadequately funded and equipped – particularly for patrolling ill-defined borders in rugged terrain.
Analysts said Iraq’s neighbors were exploiting its military weakness, aware that Baghdad had few options beside diplomacy to tackle border violations.
“Iraq does not have the means to tell neighboring countries to deal with it cautiously,” said Abdul Sattar Jaber, a commentator for al-Muttamer, a Baghdad newspaper often critical of the government. “Our deterrents are not military but political or economic.”
Kareem Hawas, a political commentator for a left-wing magazine in Baghdad, said Iraq was unable to protect its borders, “It feels weak [against] all neighboring countries.”
Abadi insisted, however, that Baghdad was defending its sovereignty. “The Iraqi government deals with Iran as it does with the rest of Iraq’s neighbors. No one is turning a blind eye to violations by Iranian forces,” he said.
IWPR Iraq editor Neil Arun and IWPR-trained journalist Shorish Khalid produced this report from Irbil and Sulaimaniyah. Additional reporting was provided by IWPR-trained journalists Ali Kareem, Faleh Hassan and Basim al-Shara in Baghdad. IWPR local editor Hogar Hasan and IWPR-trained journalist Khalid Mahmud also contributed from Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.
(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)