SCHALAMSCHE BORDER CROSSING, Iraq - The Iranian guards stared. Then they sneered. Then they tightened their grips on their rifles.
The Americans walked past. One took photos. An Iranian snapped and whistled, shaking his hands to stop it. The American continued anyway.
Meanwhile, businessmen, religious pilgrims and tourists walked between the two sides, apparently unaware of the show before them.
Welcome to the frontier.
One battery from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord 17th Fires Brigade is stationed several hundred yards from the Iranian border. For these 100 or so Tacoma-area soldiers, interactions with the Iranian border guards are largely composed of gestures.
But the U.S. military is waging a cold war against the Iranians across strategic Basra province, home to Iraq’s only ports and near major oil fields.
The brigade commands a 2,400-person task force that confronts Iran in several ways throughout Basra province:
• Civil-affairs soldiers build projects to counter Iranian “soft power.”
• A psychological operations detachment counters propaganda.
• An attached Navy riverine squadron patrols the swamps for smugglers.
• And a battery from the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment pulls security near the border and supports transition teams working with the Iraqi border patrol and immigration and customs officials.
“Iranian influence permeates this entire region,” said Capt. Geoff Shorr, the commander of Charlie Battery, stationed at Patrol Base Minden about a half-mile from the border.
American military officials in Baghdad – including Lewis-McChord’s top Army commander, who is running daily operations throughout Iraq – have blamed Iran for fueling instability throughout the country.
Iraq’s eastern neighbor is infiltrating and funding insurgent groups, training and equipping fighters on Iranian soil before shipping them west, running front businesses inside Iraq to raise money for Shia extremist groups, and trying to influence political development, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby said in December.
“As the tactical commander, my view is that nothing good, nothing helpful, is coming from Iran,” Jacoby told The News Tribune from his Baghdad headquarters. “They’re meddling in the affairs of Iraq in very unhelpful ways.”
KEY CROSSING POINT
More than $2 million in trade and hundreds of Shia pilgrims cross the frontier daily at the Schalamsche Border Crossing near Patrol Base Minden.
But the surrounding areas remain scarred from war.
Nothing grows in the nearby fields that served as major battlegrounds of the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988. The blue dome and orange flags of the Schalamsche memorial, a tribute to hundreds of thousands of Iranians killed during the war, sit right beyond the border.
Signs warn travelers not to veer off the road because of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance still underground.
In the distance, one can see the tailfins of rockets.
“Everything you see around here,” said platoon leader Lt. Michael O’Brien, sweeping his arm across the landscape, “is full of land mines, bombs, rockets. It’s deadly.”
When the Lewis-McChord battery first arrived at Minden in August, they found their fellow Americans were running daily border operations. Now Iraqis operate from refurbished buildings.
“When we got here, this place was a wreck,” said O’Brien, a Tacoma resident. “Since then we’ve renovated a lot of these buildings. We’ve moved into a true advise role – and usually, we don’t even have to do anything.”
Charlie Battery soldiers say the relationship between the Iranians and the Americans and their Iraqi allies on the border appears hostile, but much of it is mere gestures.
The 17th Fires Brigade’s information operations section leaves no doubt to the goal of its work, calling many missions “balance Iranian influence patrols.”
“It’s very simple: Iran has a vested interest in Iraq, especially in the Basra region,” said Staff Sgt. Blake Repine, the brigade’s top information operations noncommissioned officer. “We’re just trying to counter all the soft power they’re using.”
Iranians are funding projects and building schools across the region – and across the Shia areas of Iraq – to curry favor with ordinary Iraqis.
Advertising and billboards are part of the effort. One project is an awareness campaign of counterfeit dollars and dinars that have arrived from across the border. The false cash being pumped into the Basrawi economy has weakened the Iraqi currency. U.S. soldiers collect thousands of counterfeit banknotes and turn them over to the Secret Service.
The brigade’s psychological operations detachment officer, Lt. Dan Rathgeber, said many Iraqis in the region still hold a grudge from the Iran-Iraq war, and the Americans sometimes remind the Iraqi public of the eight-year conflict.
But both sides are waging a charm offensive.
“Iranians will build schools and fund hospitals, but we don’t necessarily want that soft power influencing people,” Staff Sgt. Blake Repine said. “So we try to bring forward in their media the projects that we’re doing, that we’re funding. Or, more frequently, the projects that the government of Iraq is doing.”
SECURING THE BORDER
Jacoby and other American military officials have conceded that much of the 900-mile border remains porous.
To help close those holes, a Navy riverine squadron of 210 sailors attached to 17th Fires Brigade patrols the waterways of Basra province. They train their Iraqi counterparts and search boats for smuggled weapons.
Most of the river traffic is made up of fishermen and some water taxis; the brigade sometimes coordinates joint land-water patrols if intelligence points to rockets being smuggled through an area.
The squadron has discovered smugglers trying to sneak components of roadside bombs, including the particularly deadly “explosively formed penetrators.”
Fishermen trying to smuggle non-lethal contraband, such as bootlegged cigarettes, isn’t really the squadron’s concern, its executive officer said.
“We’ll stop boats on water if we think they’re not legitimate or if they’re hiding something under their fish,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jorge Garcia, the squadron’s executive officer. “Our orders are to find ‘accelerants of violence,’ and that’s what we’re most concerned about. Finding it, and seizing it.”