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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Hawai'i troops at Iran's doorstep

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

TAWELA, Iraq — The border checkpoint, on the downside of a zigzag mountain road leading out of Iran, was closely monitored by Iraqi border guards and customs agents.

Pfc. Nicholas Wegner of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, hops down a set of steps in a mountainous region of Iraq, just across the border with Iran. Wegner was on a familiarization tour of the area with the Iraq Border Patrol.

Staff Sgt. Jason Angelle, standing, and Pfc. Nicholas Wegner accompany Iraqi Border Patrol troops near the Iran border. Just days before, Schofield troops exchanged fire with Iranians — possibly border troops — reportedly killing one.

Staff Sgt. Jason Angelle, of Nederland, Texas, front, and Pfc. Nicholas Wegner, of Akron, Ohio, both of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, cross over a mountain stream while on patrol with the Iraqi border troops.

An Iraqi Border Patrol officer leads the way down a narrow mountain path in the mountainous region between Iraq and Iran. Success along the border depends largely on the Iraqi Border Patrol, one U.S. officer said.

An Iraqi Border Patrol guard keeps watch from the back of a pickup truck during a mission with the Schofield-based soldiers.

Pfc. Nicholas Wegner, left, and translator Delan Alani, walk past the graves of Ansar al-Islam members. Ansar al-Islam, with links to al-Qaida, was largely routed from bases in northeastern Iraq by the peshmerga at the start of the war.

A mosque formerly used by members of Ansar al-Islam, casts shadows near soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery, and the Iraqi Border Patrol.

A U.S. Army Humvee follows close behind a pickup truck manned by members of the Iraqi Border Patrol. In northern Iraq, the border patrol draws its members from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Photos by Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But that's not the case even a short distance away, and Lt. Col. Hawraman Muhammed Hussain wanted to make that point.

About a mile past the checkpoint, the Iraqi Border Patrol commander led a group of four Schofield Barracks soldiers up a trail along a mountain stream popular with picnickers, through blossoming walnut trees to a four-foot broken chunk of concrete.

That's when the five Iranian border guards got nervous.

Making tea out of sight several hundred yards away, they were obviously worried at seeing the mix of Americans and 11 Kurdish peshmerga fighters, now turned border guards, on their country's doorstep.

Just several days before, another Schofield team had exchanged gunfire with Iranians who were possibly border guards in another district, reportedly killing one Iranian.

Following a subdued conversation in Farsi between Hussain and a blue-uniformed Iranian across the divide — and some apprehensive eye-darting on both sides — the U.S.-led contingent headed back down the trail.

Iraq here. Iran there. Not much besides the chunk of concrete in the wooded mile-high valley to distinguish the difference.

"You can see, there's a lot of open areas where you can travel by foot (into Iraq) that aren't guarded," said 1st Lt. John Song, whose 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery unit has a nonartillery mission: building up security on the border with Iran.

The Coalition Provisional Authority on March 13 announced a new policy to tighten border security to stem the flow of terrorists and foreign fighters entering the country — something the battalion already had started.

The new initiative calls for doubling security personnel at Iraq's borders from about 8,000 to 16,000, and closing all but three points of entry from Iran.

Although the number of infiltrators is not known with precision, "recent attacks ... underscore the importance of improving security at Iraq's borders," said senior coalition spokesman Dan Senor.

Terrorism by extremist groups such as Ansar al-Islam — linked to bombings including the Feb. 1 suicide attacks on Kurdish party offices in Irbil that killed 109 people — is something U.S. forces and Kurds want to prevent in the northeastern Sulaymaniyah province and elsewhere in Iraq.

Song's team of seven soldiers and an interpreter make the trip from Sulaymaniyah to two border districts — Halabja and Darbandi Khan — every four days to supervise the equipping and training of the growing force.

Together, the districts cover hundreds of miles of possible Iranian border crossing spots.

"The IBP is new. We're just starting to get the ball rolling," said Song, 23, a 1998 graduate of Mililani High School. "I'm sure as time goes by, the program will get better."

Col. Lloyd Miles, who commands Schofield Barracks soldiers of the 2nd Brigade in Iraq, said most of the issues now are equipment-related — getting the border patrol uniforms, weapons and vehicles. "We're working hard to get them up to a certain level where they can do the mission on their own," Miles said.

Several 2-11 field artillery units operate along the Iranian border alongside some of the approximately 30,000 peshmerga fighters in the Kurdish region, which has had autonomy since 1991.

Ansar al-Islam, with links to al-Qaida, was largely routed from bases of operation in northeastern Iraq last year by the peshmerga at the start of the war.

The United States also launched missile strikes on key Ansar strongholds, but remnants of the group remain in Iraq and Iran.

"In military parlance, we call it an economy-of-force mission," Miles said of 2-11's involvement. "We put the minimal number of forces out there to still do the job. We're able to do that ... because there is still a large number of Kurdish peshmerga out there that's really like a militia, and they really assist us with security in the province."

The field artillery battalion is spread across the four corners of the 2nd Brigade's operating area, a region the size of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts combined.

One of the biggest challenges for commanders such as Hussain, who has more than 200 guards and 60 miles of border to patrol in the Halabja district, is the nonofficial routes between the two countries.

"A lot of stuff goes across by dump truck, and a lot is, 'Gentlemen, start your donkeys,' " said Maj. Thomas Williams, 2-11's operations officer.

For the soldiers who are part of Song's team, the nonartillery border mission is just a sign of the times.

"The Army puts you where they want to put you," said Sgt. Nolan Heanu, 28, who's from Papakolea. "(It's) short on manpower."

At the Tawela checkpoint, immigration official Frya Osman said the only traffic allowed through are vehicles belonging to known Kurds who have family members on both sides of the border.

Osman had heard that Tawela would be one of the three crossings.

At the crossings that remain open, all arriving visitors will need to present a passport, fill out an entry form, be issued a temporary entry card and be entered into an immigration monitoring system.

"He doesn't know (what the change will mean)," said interpreter Delan Alani, translating for Osman. "If somebody comes through with a passport, how does he know what he's going to do?"

Miles said he expects hundreds of additional border guards to be hired and trained for his operating area.

Mala Ahmad Diskaram, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the predominant political party in the region, and commander of security forces for the Halabja District, said closing down most of the border crossings, putting in razor wire at passes, and adding border police all would help keep terrorists out of the country.

"The more (border guards) the better," Diskaram said. "It will block another hole."

Song said he's working on getting Hussain not only more vehicles so his border guards can check additional crossings, but also night-vision devices so they can patrol with greater stealth.

On March 14, Schofield soldiers killed one uniformed man and injured another — both possibly Iranian border guards — who had fired on them from the Iranian side of the border near the town of Mawat, The Associated Press reported.

For Song's team, the border assignment has been relatively quiet. But he said Hussain's forces recently shot and killed an Iranian smuggling drugs.

After his own impromptu meeting with Iranian border guards, Song said "it's good to show force together (with the Iraqi Border Patrol). It will make (infiltrators) think twice if they want to come across the border."

But he knows that any success will really come from the border patrol. "They are the ones going to make it happen," Song said, adding he has a lot of confidence in Hussain, 37, a Peshmerga fighter since he was 15.

"He's going to be very effective, and he'll be even more so because of the things he'll get," Song said. "He's not greedy for money. He just wants to do something for his country. He cares about his people."