Saturday, August 18, 2007

Saudis police desert border with Iraq

I recently visited Judeida, one of five border post headquarters (qiyada) dotted along the nearly 1000km stretch that is the Saudi-Iraqi border. Flying into the nearby Saudi town of Ar'ar from Riyadh, I was reminded of the look of an Iraqi or Syrian town. Certainly this sleepy 150,000 Saudi border settlement is far closer to Iraq in location and tribal terms than the northern Saudi cities of Jowf or Tabuk, let alone Riyadh or Jiddah. Along the border, the haris al-hudud (border guard), a branch of the interior ministry, conduct patrol by "dareeah", pick up trucks with machine guns for cargo, while night vision cameras are used each night by four similar vehicles in response to daily intel feeds. The Judeida Qiyada covers seven markaz ("centres") - sentry posts - where a small contingent of drivers and assistants move between these fixed points in a virtually non-stop procession, aside, that is, from prayer and meal times. Between nine and fifteen dareeah drive all day and night along two tracks that run alongside the three, three metre or so high, sand banks that separate the north of the kingdom from the anarchy of Iraq. The border area from the third to the first and last sand-banked border line (see pic below) is designated as a "closed military area". There are asphalted roads that run into this area and between the sand banks, and, I was told, no check-points to prevent a Saudi civilian driver entering, and, in theory, speeding on to Iraq. However they would no doubt soon be stopped by one of the official vehicles if they tried. It was also pointed out to me that the sand affords detection of footprints from those trying a stealthier approach, and that any prints are observable in the headlights of the dareeah vehicles. This would appear to be reasonably efficient, if possibly rather belated, method of detection. The whole terrain of the northern border area is essentially "sahel" - bleak, flat, and fairly forbidding, with few very inhabitants, save, I am told, a few bedu. (Their loyalty, however, may be as fixed as their postal address). Of course, despite there being no open crossing, it is admitted that Iraqis do get through to the Saudi side, though only "several", it is conceded, make the illegal journey in a given year. Some of course will be seeking work, or to trade in drugs, others will be handed to intelligence officers on the assumption that their purpose is terroristic. Not one Saudi, it is said officially, goes this way into Iraq, however. This makes sense, the terrain and the existence of many local inhabitants makes the Jordan then Syrian crossing rather more amenable, especially as it connects with a potentialy more welcoming reception in western Iraq than the largely Shia south. There is a long-standing haj border crossing in the Judeidah area, and two years ago this was opened for the annual month of pilgrimage for the first time since the 1991 Gulf war. An obvious potential security risk, the Iraqi hajis going from Iraq into Saudi (see above pic) will be greeted by 50 haris al-hudud officers and 200 intelligence officers when they move further down to the haj processing centre. For the rest of the year it is dead, with no one visible on the Iraqi side, and only a locked gate on the Saudi side. For the most part, this was a pretty convincing official tour of border security operations. Although I could not help but wonder at the relatively small scale of the operation at what represents one fifth of the border security operation on a 1000 km stretch for which, I was constntly reminded, there is only one country actually doing anything at all. Of course a far more sophisticated set up is planned, with infra-red detectors et al, to prepare for the seemingly inevitable worsening of the situation just metres from here. Contracts for the first of the hi-tech three phase border security project may be awarded before the end of the year, with Jordan and Yemen following the beefing up of the Iraqi border. For now, the inspection of pick ups and a few mobile night vision cameras seem to suffice.

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