MUNTHERIA BORDER CROSSING, Iraq (AP) — The U.S. Army for the first time Saturday gave Iraq's provisional government responsibility for patrolling a stretch of the country's borders — a sensitive, 210-mile region of forbidding desert frontier between Iraq and Iran.
The transfer was significant, because it comes as the U.S.-led coalition faces pressure to give Iraqis more control over their affairs. And security here is crucial: The border is a popular crossing point for illegal Iranian pilgrims en route to Shiite holy sites, raising fears that al-Qaida or other terrorists could sneak through in disguise.
Calling it an "important day for the Iraqi people," Col. Michael Moody, commander of the 4th Infantry's 4th Brigade, formally handed patrol duties in area to Iraqi Col. Nazim Shareef Mohammed.
Part of an American drive to ease the burden on thinly stretched U.S. soldiers, the switch marked the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein that Iraqis have been given policing authority over an entire border region. The American occupation forces now have only an advisory role.
"This is a great example of new Iraqi security forces taking control," Moody said. "Each day the border becomes more secure. This is good news for the Iraqi people and the coalition."
The frontier includes a craggy, mountainous region — some of the most treacherous terrain in Iraq — and temperatures often surpass 122 degrees. It runs from the edges of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Iraq to a point just southeast of Baghdad, encompassing nearly all of the province, one of three under 4th Infantry control.
"If this experiment is successful in Diyalia province, then it is an example for all of Iraq," declared Lt. Col. Reggie Allen, commanding officer of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry, standing just near the border.
Mohammed's 1,178-strong force is made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turks. "We are unique," said Mohammed, a Kurd. "This is an important day for us because we officially take over this highly sensitive border."
U.S. soldiers started training the Iraqi border forces in May, in sessions that touched on human rights of detainees as well as searches for Islamic militants or suicide bombers of the Iraqi resistance, trying to blend in with pilgrims.
With no diplomatic relations between Iran and Iraq, many Iranians try to cross at a point about 75 miles east of Baghdad on their way to Najaf and Karbala — the most-sacred cities for Shiites after Mecca and Medina.
Allen said his 4th Infantry forces, equipped with armored vehicles and scout helicopters, have stopped more than 14,000 illegal pilgrims since the end of August.
The pilgrims often trek for two or three days through the wasteland to reach a highway just inside Iraq, hoping to hook up with smugglers who charge them up to $30 to drive them south to the two cities. They are often robbed by the people offering to drive them.
"The word is out in Iran that Iraq is free," Allen said. "For years, Saddam Hussein did not allow them into the country. Now, they mass themselves in groups sometimes as large as 1,000 and cross. Some die of dehydration as they cross."
When border forces catch them, the Iranians are held in a collection facility, screened and returned home.
Lt. Col. Vince Price, who runs part of the border with Allen, said border guards recently stopped two Afghans with Taliban identification cards. The Afghans were released, but Price said it was a sign of the close cooperation between the Iraqi border police and U.S. Army.