The rotting wooden boats on the garbage-strewn beach at Al-Faw represent the last frontier at the far corner of southeastern Iraq. Barely 55 yards (50 m) across a narrow stretch of water known as the Shatt al-Arab close enough to swim over lies Iran, an elusive but increasingly intimate ally to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, and the principal country the U.S. accuses of fueling violence and illegal militias in Iraq.
Iraqi military and police commanders in the southern border provinces of Maysan and Basra, where Al-Faw is located, admit as much, though they say the government's military campaigns in the past three months have dramatically reduced the flow of illegal goods which, in addition to weapons, they say includes drugs, diesel fuel and wanted persons.
A year ago, Al-Faw and the nearby, larger city of Basra were major hubs for Shi'ite militia smuggling rings and a dangerous no-go zone for most Westerners and wealthy Iraqis. Kidnappings were rampant, and many local authorities were either complicit in the activities or too afraid to act. "Previously, yes, the army was present here," says Basra military commander General Mohammed Jawad Huwaidi. "But the outlaws and bandits were working under the names of parties. So we needed the political will to start the operation." One top Iraqi commander, who only agreed to speak anonymously, says the local police had been particularly corrupt. Once the central government's operation began, he says, "1,000 police were arrested in Basra and Al-Faw." Now, says Colonel Abbas Tamimi, an Iraqi military spokesman in Basra, "the most important thing is for the Iraqi army to control our borders."
U.S. and British forces have helped in the efforts to get Iraq's border under control. Says Huwaidi: "They help with air support and they control the main gate at [the border crossing of] Khorramshahr, and they help with ground missions on the border when needed." Still, he says, it's not enough. "We have procedures to control the border, but it's not enough because we don't have enough troops and the border is too long. Until now, people and weapons are still getting across, especially from Iran."
Despite the regular military checkpoints along the road from Basra to Al-Faw, Iraqi military commanders in Basra say the stretch of border at Iraq's southeastern tip is still the most problematic, especially for the more benign, low-profit trade in illegal gasoline. At Al-Faw's small army base, nearly 30 butane gas canisters sit in the back of a truck, which the soldiers say was confiscated that morning. "They filled [the canisters] with diesel fuel for cars and they were taking it to fishermen to sell on the black market," says Al-Faw military commander Colonel Kareem Talaa, as one of his officers pierced the top of a canister with a knife and then tipped it to let a translucent liquid drip out.
Residents in Basra and Amara say the government's crackdown in the region has, in many ways, yielded positive results. In Basra, families and young people throng the streets in the evening to socialize, no longer scared of the militias that previously dominated the city. The weapons trade also seems to have declined, with a sharp drop in attacks since 2007 as evidence. On the long, deserted road from Basra to Al-Faw, an Iraqi soldier points out several muddy port towns, consisting of low concrete houses. "It is difficult for them. Iraqi families have four or five children," he says. "Before the operation, most of them were [arms] smugglers. Now I do not know how they get their daily bread."
But the illegal market for drugs and gasoline may yet provide a lucrative alternative for smugglers, and it remains largely overlooked as security forces focus their limited resources on illicit weapons. In the more rural region of Maysan province, where a wide stretch of marshland border creates a difficult environment for Iraqi troops to operate, some officials say drug trafficking is on the rise. "Until now, the border forces do not have the capability to control the border," says police commander General Saad Ali Harbia in Maysan's capital, Amara. "A huge amount of drugs heading for the Gulf countries pass through Amara." He says the smuggling problem has only increased since the start of the war in 2003, "because the American forces don't control the border." Agence France Presse reported last week that drug-trafficking arrests in Amara hit a new high last year, at 46. Most of the drugs, Basra military officials say, are opiates and cannabis, believed to originate in Afghanistan, that pass through Iran and Iraq for sale in the richer Gulf states.
The formal extent of Iran's role remains murky. Some Iraqi commanders are even wary of naming Iran as a party in the smuggling, though they will point to Basra and Maysan as problem areas. "Basra province is a big province and its borders are open, not just to Iran, but to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," says one soldier. "All three countries are supplying the militias with weapons."
Other officers are more suggestive. Captain Saad, a military spokesman in Basra, says there was no cooperation between Iraqi and Iranian authorities with regard to border control. On the contrary, he says, "We received a letter one month ago from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they condemned an incident where Iraqi forces shot at some smugglers in the Shatt al-Arab."
Indeed, this isn't the first time Al-Faw or the Shatt al-Arab waterway have been the backdrop to tense exchanges between the two neighbors. "Al-Faw is dear to all Iraqis because it still holds the bodies of the martyrs from the war with Iran," said Talaa. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the stretch of coastline was the site of several devastating battles between the two sides, including one in 1988 in which the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Today Tehran's friendly relationship with Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government is a far cry from what it was in the '80s. But few Iraqis can forget the nearly decade-long conflict, and many despite the countries' new friendship are wary of Iran's current intentions. "We should build something like the Great Wall of China between Iraq and Iran to prevent anyone from coming over," says one soldier, driving in an army convoy from Al-Faw to Basra. To his right, an oil refinery in the Iranian city of Abadan spouts flames on the horizon.