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Originally published Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. boosts presence along Iranian border

Behind a maze of concrete blast walls rising from a desolate desert landscape that was once the scene of pitched battles between the armies...

Chicago Tribune

PATROL BASE SHOCKER, Iraq — Behind a maze of concrete blast walls rising from a desolate desert landscape that was once the scene of pitched battles between the armies of Iran and Iraq, a new American base is springing to life.

Located four miles from the Iranian border near the Iraqi town of Badrah, Patrol Base Shocker has been home to 240 soldiers and contractors, including 55 U.S. troops, a handful of Department of Homeland Security officers and a contingent of soldiers from the Eastern European nation of Georgia since the base became operational in mid-November.

The base lacks the comforts of many of the larger U.S. bases in Iraq, but it is luxurious compared to some of the dozens of small patrol bases that have sprung up around Iraq as part of the new counterinsurgency strategy, most of which are intended to be temporary.

And though the U.S. troops here were technically deployed as part of the surge of U.S. brigades dispatched to Iraq earlier this year, they will not be withdrawn when those brigades are drawn down, something U.S. commanders have said will happen by the middle of next year.

Instead, the intention is to maintain "a continuous presence" in the border area, training Iraqi border guards, looking for smuggled weapons and monitoring the flow of goods and people from Iran, according to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch of the 3rd Infantry Division, under whose command the base falls.

The existence of this new base along the Iranian border illustrates yet another shift in the U.S. military's Iraq mission. From toppling Saddam Hussein to searching for weapons of mass destruction to defeating al-Qaida in Iraq, checking Iran's expansive influence within the new Iraq has emerged as a key U.S. goal.

Containing Iran "is now clearly part of our mission," Lynch said in an interview during a tour of the base. "Our mission here [in Iraq] is threefold: It's Sunni extremists, Shiite extremists and Iranian influence."

Though the National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003 has eased tensions and dampened the likelihood of an all-out U.S.-Iran confrontation, the struggle between the U.S. and Iran for power and influence over the future Iraq is likely to persist for as long as American forces are deployed there, analysts say.

The toppling of Saddam and the installation of an Iran-friendly, Shiite-led government overturned decades of enmity between Iran and Iraq, transforming Iran almost overnight into perhaps the single most influential player in Iraq despite the presence of U.S. troops.

"Iran is going to be a powerful player in Iraq into the foreseeable future, and the U.S. wants to withdraw in a way that doesn't leave Iran as the dominant power in Iraq," said W. Andrew Terrill, of the U.S. Army War College.

The U.S. push out to the Iranian border was prompted by the realization earlier this year that significant quantities of Iranian munitions were turning up in the hands of both Shiite and Sunni insurgent groups, and by a sharp increase in the use of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs — a particularly lethal form of roadside bomb believed to be manufactured in Iran.

U.S. officials now say they have no evidence that Iranian-made weapons are continuing to find their way into Iraq, and that the number of EFP attacks has fallen. But officials caution that it still isn't clear whether the flow has stopped.

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Until U.S. soldiers were deployed in Wasit province last June, there had been no U.S. presence in the Iranian border vicinity since the 2003 invasion. The province had come under the authority of the Polish contingent of the multinational force, and local Iraqis say border controls were lax.

At the border crossing of Zurbatiya, one of four main border posts along the 1,000-mile Iran-Iraq border, the U.S. Border Transition Teams are trying to change that. A hive of activity in the otherwise empty desert, the border is heavily trafficked, with 1,500 Iranians — almost all of them pilgrims coming to visit Iraq's Shiite shrines — and 150 Iranian trucks crossing every day.

Iranians lining up for passport checks smirk and wave as a group of American military officials tours the post. A new X-ray facility scans the trucks.

Iraqi passport control checkers apply biometrics testing to all military-age males, taking their fingerprints, scanning their retinas and feeding the data into a computer that would alert them to wanted men.

Since U.S. forces began operating at Zurbatiya six months ago, they have not found any weapons or caught any terrorists, but suspect they are using different routes where there are no checkpoints.

The border operation is to be manned by Georgian soldiers and is expected to be fully operational by Jan. 1.

The entire operation is supported by a forward operating base, Delta, located just outside the provincial capital, Kut, and home to around 3,000 soldiers, including Americans, Kazakhs, Georgians, Lithuanians, Romanians and Salvadorans. There are also U.S. military and civilian analysts monitoring the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq.

Weapons aren't the only manifestation of Iranian influence in Iraq. Trucks piled high with Iranian goods, including bricks, sheet metal, onions and fuel queue to cross into Iraq. All the trucks in the line headed for Iran are empty.

Iranian goods have flooded into Iraq over the past few years, and Iraqi businessmen and farmers complain that they are unable to compete with cheaper Iranian produce. Part of the U.S. strategy is to help Iraqi companies compete with their Iranian counterparts by encouraging an "Iraqi first" campaign, Lynch said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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