KHANAQIN, IRAQ—The five men led the train of 17 donkeys quietly through the still and clear night. The braying animals, weighed down with explosives, were strung together with ropes, so that a mere handful of men could conduct the entire convoy. The smugglers made their way through the crumbling soil of the desert, choosing a desolate spot to cross from Iran into Diyala province in eastern Iraq. "When my men opened fire on them, it was as much of a surprise to my men as it was to the terrorists," says Brig. Gen. Nazim Sharif Muhammad, who commands Iraqi border police in Diyala. "My soldiers were supposed to delay the ambush longer and trap more of the terrorist fighters, but they were young and excited and fired too soon. The terrorists all escaped." The Iraqi guards wounded several of the men. They also rounded up all the animals, which were carrying 163 Russian- and Italian-made antitank mines as well as hundreds of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
The dramatic weapon seizure in May was a rare success for the Iraqi border patrol, which until recently was low on Baghdad's priority list. But border security has grown in importance in the past year as security improves and U.S. forces mount a broader push to shift more responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts. No place is that more evident than in regular meetings between American commanders and Iraqi leaders, where the Iraqis are now told to ask Baghdad, rather than the U.S. military, for reconstruction grants and operational funding. Both the Iraqis and the Americans are anticipating a long-awaited "status of forces" agreement between Baghdad and Washington that will very likely call for U.S. forces to be consolidated on several large bases by the summer of 2009 and largely withdrawn in 2011.
Weapon caches. Diyala is ground zero in the effort to secure Iraq's porous 900-mile-long border with Iran. U.S. and Iraqi officials are working to strengthen defenses; rebuild outposts; train security, customs, and border security teams; and use unmanned aerial vehicles to watch for men—or donkeys—moving weapons. U.S. military commanders have long alleged that weapon caches found in Iraq have Iranian fingerprints, judging by the manufacturers' markings. In particular, U.S. officials have blamed Iran for supplying sophisticated roadside bombs shaped to penetrate armored vehicles. Iraqi security forces also accuse Tehran of fomenting unrest and supporting insurgents of all stripes.
The extent of the Iranian government's role in the trade remains murky. U.S. combat commanders here point out that Iranians haven't been caught in the act of large-scale smuggling. "There are new Iranian munitions coming across, but there hasn't yet been a major seizure at the border of new weapons or weapons components to prove it," says one senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Baghdad. The only seizures so far have been small shipments that are likely tribal trade.
A volatile mix of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, Diyala remains one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq, even with the steep decline in violence around the country. Since the war began, nearly 250 Americans have lost their lives here. In October, the 17th female suicide bomber of the year targeted a government center in the provincial capital of Baquba. Iraqi forces continue their efforts to round up militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq followers.
The insurgents operating here are generally Sunni, though there are several Shiite factions as well. Diyala's Sunni majority harbors strong resentment of the Shiites who dominate the provincial government. That's likely to change with elections set for January, and the political parties and insurgents alike are positioning themselves for the vote. Kurdish leaders here, meanwhile, insist they are tired of fighting. "We've lost thousands of fighters first to Saddam Hussein, then to five years of insurgency and terror," says one Kurdish leader in Diyala. "We've had enough."
Diyala, one of the five provinces that remain under full U.S. military control, has long been a crossroads for commerce and conflict—a place where few locals recognize provincial or national boundaries. General Nazim, himself a Kurd serving the government of Iraq, has the unenviable task of trying to defend 92 miles of winding border in Diyala. Three years ago, he had only 400 men under his command for the entire sector. Today, he's got 2,700 soldiers who, despite their jumpiness during the summer ambush, are trained, professional, and disciplined, according to U.S. military assessments. With the stepped-up enforcement, illegal traffic across the border has slowed to a trickle compared with three years ago. At that time, Nazim's men caught hundreds of people illegally crossing the border every week. Now, it's around 50 per week—mostly Shiite pilgrims making their way to shrines in Iraq.