BORDER TRANSITION TEAMS IN IRAQ
As the United States’ presence in Iraq dwindles down, and the shift of Iraqi control that began on 30 June, 2009, continues, US forces are becoming useful in another area of Iraq—the border region. Part of the Security Agreement that was negotiated with the Iraqi government is that Iraqis are taking control and the lead of their country. US forces are pulling out of the cities (part of the surge program) and moving back to their major bases in the country.
One area not affected by the Security Agreement is the Border Transition Teams (BTT). These are teams which go out and patrol along the Iraq–Iran border. A few drawbacks to these teams are that they are very small, have a large area to cover and are exposed to the danger accompanying any patrol in Iraq. They are always within 200 meters of Iran, and most times are separated from Iran by only a dirt berm and 20 meters of open road.
During the early 80s, Iraq and Iran were at war. Many battles were fought and hundreds of thousands on both sides died during this period. Sadam Hussein declared himself the victor at the end of this war, the remnants of which litter many parts of the border area. While going out through the Basra area, which is where the bulk of the fighting occurred, you can still see old tanks sitting where they fired into Iran, bleached by the sun and the harsh desert environment, their guns still pointed toward Iran. There is a sea of landmines. This area is full of them. One report I was informed of was that these landmines stretched almost 24 kilometers north from the Basra area—not only anti-tank mines but also in many areas anti-personal mines.
These areas are not marked; the old Iraqi Army just laid the mines out where they thought the invasion of Iranian forces would come. At the end of the war, the old Iraqi Army just got up and left, leaving the mines in place. American explosive ordnance disposal has come out and cleared some, but there is no way they can keep up with as many mines as are out in this area. Occasionally water buffalo and wild cows will come to the end of their life tripping one of the mines off, and both Iraqi and Iranian border forces will be on alert thinking that they were just mortared by the enemy.
As US forces are to train Iraqis to take back their own country, the BTTs’ job is to enforce the border. While they do their job of patrolling along the border, many times Iranian border guards track them with crew-served weapons until they pass through the sector. As tension has increased with Iran in the past year, large caliber guns and occasionally tanks have been been known to show up and track them as they move by in their mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. Iranian helicopters (Mi-24 Hinds) will do flyovers as well.
BTTs are small, usually composed of around 15 US Army personal, half officers and half senior enlisted Soldiers. They have the job of training and supervising the Iraqi border personnel. The team has to be self-sufficient, so they are grouped together of different military occupational specialties (MOSs). There are combat arms, medics, logistical support or supply, and intelligence personnel, all brought together so that the team can operate with little support from the major bases in the area.
A BTT will usually start the week with a meeting to discuss plans and goals for the week. The rest of the week they are going out and executing the plans. Their activities range from training Iraqi forces, follow-up on the training, planning with Iraqis, inspection of the Iraqi command and how they are completing their missions, to even establishing surprise observation posts (OPs) to observe everything in their area. While the US Border Patrol has to
combat illegal immigration, the BTT not only has to worry about that, but also the possible smuggling of lethal aid—bombs, rockets, ammunition, mortars, explosives, and the ever present improvised explosive devices and components, including explosively formed penetrators, into the area.
The BTTs also have to deal with corruption. Insurgent activity is known to have payoffs to officials to get around the area through checkpoints. The insurgency is able to obtain their weapons to use against Coalition forces by both intimidation and by paying off officials to turn their cheek, or to have a blind eye on inspections in the area. BTTs get into the individual Iraqi companies and get to know each of the Iraqi soldiers, and watch them closely. By using some of their pre-deployment training to spot corruption, and using intelligence to check out their Iraqi counterparts, these Soldiers become aware of what is going on with Iraqis in the area, and learn who is possibly involved with insurgent cells. With night time patrols and OPs, the BTTs stay on top of what is going on in their area of operations.
While out on OPs, the teams will use all the sophisticated equipment that the US has to offer for their benefit. The teams have the best personal night vision goggles and thermal devices, along with manned and unmanned aerial systems to patrol the sky above. Occasionally the BTTs take their counterpart out to teach them how to do OPs as well. The Iraqi government is slowly equipping the Iraqi soldiers with night vision devices to use for the OPs. BTTs also use this equipment to observe shipping ports in the Basra area to detect smuggling. The equipment can be set up on land far away from the port, and ships can be seen coming into the docks. The BTTs observe as ships from other countries are unloaded. They also observe small boats, which can be used for smuggling, making their way up the rivers and canals. If the teams suspect anything is not right, other American and Iraqi forces in the area are alerted and called in to apprehend the smugglers, border jumpers, and possible insurgents.
Overall the BTTs are seeing progress with the growing Iraqi control. Some of the Iraqi leadership is out to make a difference; accepting accountability for actions in their area of responsibility, they are cleaning things up. Several of the Iraqi generals in the Basra area fought for years against the Iranians, and have direct control of their area. They take a lot of pride in what happens, and are shamed by any corruption that happens in their area of the border. With that, they patrol heavily against the insurgency, border intrusions, and any lethal aid that flows through.