During Saddam Hussein’s regime, the mission of guarding the Iran-Iraq border fell upon fivedivisions of the Iraqi Army (about seventy thousand men). The CPA Order Number Two effectively ended border security along this section of the border. Along Iraq’s border with Iran, the Coalition had far fewer troops.
At the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May of 2003, the United States and coalition forces started operations to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure and government. However, plans, policy, and forces were not applied to secure the integrity of Iraq's borders, principally its borders with Syria and Iran. Border forces were destroyed or had deserted. Foreign fighters, arms, and supplies would flow at a steady rate across Iraq's border and fuel an insurgency that is still being fought by U.S. and coalition forces. Iraq’s borders remained a problem for Coalition forces throughout the counterinsurgency campaign. Iraq has over 3,600 kilometers of border, of which almost one-half is with Iran (1458 kilometers) and shorter distances with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan.
The long Iraqi border with Iran remains a concern. Planners assumed that the threat of a sizable Coalition force in the region combined with Iran’s traditional animosity toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would mean that the Iranians would stay out of the fight. In the early part of the Coalition campaign in Iraq it appeared that this assumption was correct. However, as early as May 2003, reports filtered in that a group of Iranian radicals had made its way into Iraq with the intent of influencing the post-Saddam government. Coalition leaders noted that Iranian foreign fighters in Iraq seemed to increase over the following year.
On the border, the Coalition maintained only enough troops to monitor the official points of entry (a situation similar to that found in areas controlled by the US military). In the spring of 2004, the United States closed sixteen of nineteen points of entry along the border with Iran in order to reduce the number of spots at which Iranian agents could potentially enter the country. This left three points of entry and fifteen manned “denial points" to control the border. These positions were undermanned and inadequate to the task of stopping border traffic entering from Iran. However, traffic was still able to cross the border in areas not controlled by border guards.
Even at the controlled points of entry, border guards allowed Shia pilgrims headed to Najaf and Karbala to pass without passports. According to Iraqi border officers, Shia politicalparties (SCIRI and Dawa) paid guides to circumvent official points of entry and carryIranian pilgrims across the border. Many of the men brought across the border aspilgrims may have actually been Iranian agents entering Iraq to provide support for Shiaextremist groups.
In the spring of 2004, the Coalition took active steps to police the border, including closing down 16 of 19 open border crossings, funding 8,000 more border guards, and setting up a computerized passport system. The unsecured Iraqi border also allowed munitions as well as sophisticated weapons designed to defeat coalition armored vehicles to move across the Iranian border. These munitions in particular have proved deadly to coalition forces and produce the highest amount of casualties. By the fall of 2005, reports indicated that the increased deadliness of insurgent improvised explosive devices came in part from new supplies of Iranian TNT, which one guerrilla called “about seven times stronger than the TNT available in Iraq." In March 2006, US General John Abazaid confirmed such reports, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the insurgents had started using Iranian IED components and that "terrorists in northeastern Iraq used the Iranian northwestern border to move back and forth across the border."
The most public and detailed display of evidence came on 11 February 2007, when military intelligence officers displayed a variety of weapons captured in Iraq with Iranian markings. Included in the weapons displayed were TNT (with Farsi markings) seized on the Iraqi border inDecember of 2005, Misagh surface to air missiles (SAM) used by insurgents in 2004, 81-millimeter mortar rounds seized in 2006, and Iranian anti-tank rocket propelled grenades seized in Baghdad in early 2007. Coalition forces also seized numerous explosively-formed penetrators (EFP), a particularly effective type of improvised explosive device, in numerous locations throughout Iraq. The EFPs lacked Iranian markings, but are similar to weapons supplied to Palestinian insurgents by Iran. Coalition officials believed that the EFPs (especially those found with passive-infrared triggers) were beyond themanufacturing capabilities of insurgents inside Iraq.
The assessment from "The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq" dated September 6, 2007, states that border security in Iraq is not much better now than it was at the end of major combat operations. The United States has conducted significant border security operations in other regions of the world that may provide lessons learned on this issue.
Iran posed a significant challenge to Iraq’s long-term stability and political independence. Iran also continues to pursue economic, cultural, and humanitarian outreach to the Iraqi public. The GoI, through reciprocal visits with Iran at the Head-of-State and Foreign Minister levels, has sent strong messages warning Iran against interference in Iraq’s internal politics, while encouraging improved bilateral relations, economic cooperation, and cultural and religious exchanges. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and other senior GoI leaders are reportedly developing a comprehensive policy on Iran that encourages constructive, peaceful relations.
Tehran continues to invest heavily to gain and sustain political and economic influence in Iraq. Iran has the capacity to influence Iraqi elections by leveraging its soft power capabilities — economic, political, religious, and humanitarian outreach — and with violence if necessary through its sponsorship of Iraqi Shi’a militant groups. Iran may also attempt to influence Iraqi leaders by virtue of longstanding personal and political ties. Although the number of high-level Iranian visits to Iraq declined as Iran approached its own elections in June 2009, Iran remained focused on achieving its political goals in Iraq through reciprocal visits of lower-level officials.
By late 2009 levels of monthly explosively-formed penetrator (EFP) incidents had slightly decreased. ISF and U.S. force pressure, as well as the removal of key extremist leaders, significant cache recoveries, and more effective policing of Iraq borders have reduced logistical and financial support to the networks involved in improvised explosive device (IED) and EFP attacks. Increased border and clearing operations in southern and central Iraq also disrupted the movement and storage of EFP components to Shi’a militants.