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Iraqis fortify Syrian border with help of Marines

31 Aug 2004 | Cpl. Randy L. Bernard

They patrol 890 kilometers of land in Iraq between Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, looking for smuggled weapons and foreign fighters.

They are the Iraqi Border Police, and they are expanding their ability to control the border with the help of Marines here.

Along the Syrian border, forts are now being constructed to replace those that were destroyed in the war. The forts serve as a base of operations for each Border Police unit.

"The concept is to have professionally trained Border Policemen to patrol the border," said Navy Lt. James N. Vandenberg, a project manager for the Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group. "The original forts were manned by 17-to-18-year-olds, given a weapon, and told to 'watch the border.'"

Each of the forts will cost about $235,000. 

"Money that was intended for the Iraqis in the first place, but was taken by Saddam Hussein, is now being used to build the first eight forts," added Vandenberg, 43, of Little Rock, Ark.

This seized money not only rebuilt what was lost, but built better forts complete with a few comforts the original forts did not have.  The new units will have running water, showers, air conditioning, living quarters, offices and holding cells. 

The completed project will consist of 32 total outposts along the border. Each will be complete with fully trained and operational Border Policemen to conduct regular security patrols with new vehicles, according to Vandenberg.

The border policemen will have a tough job ahead of them once the forts are in place.

"Right now they don't have any sort of customs or strict border patrol," said Capt. Sean W. Pascoli, weapons company commander for 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.  "We are working joint operations with the border police 24/7 to maintain a presence up here on the border.  We have given them the tools they need to be successful, now we just have to turn toward training them."

Often, the Border Police have stopped smugglers from bringing sheep and cigarettes into Iraq during patrols along the border, but these same smugglers could bring weapons or fighters into the country, according to Pascoli.

"Our mission is the same as the Border Police: to protect the sovereignty of Iraq," said Pascoli, 36, of Wheeling, W. Va. "Hopefully, when we are done here, we will have worked ourselves out of a job."

The forts should be completed by February, and the Border Police fully operational.  Until then, project is in the hands of Iraqi contractors, who are currently building structures that will aid their country's economy.

"We want to hire contractors who hire Iraqi workers, and put to work as many Iraqis as we can to rebuild their country," Vandenberg said. "The intent is to help Iraqis help themselves.  All we did was give them the grease... they need to help the wheels turn."