Doubts linger as Syria shows Iraq border security

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WADI AL-SAWAB, Syria, Nov 19 (Reuters) Syrian soldiers speed along the border with Iraq on truck patrols designed, officials say, to prevent Jihadists from Syria joining the insurgency on the other side.

Others man elevated posts along the 600-km border, their machineguns pointed into the void of the Great Syrian Desert stretching south of the Euphrates River into Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

However, there are no armoured vehicles in sight, and no helicopters or surveillance planes fly along the border line, which is off limits to civilians.

Syria says it has stepped up security on the frontier after US criticism that it was allowing foreign fighters into Iraq, but diplomats on a rare tour of the border said more measures were need and the troops should be better equipped.

They said the Damascus government, which has pledged to share intelligence with Baghdad, should crack down on networks providing the infrastructure for fighters and reveal the identities of those arrested.

''Do your men have binoculars, or walkie-talkies?'' one of the diplomats asked Syrian commander Mohammad Khalouf, in charge of a sector comprising half the length of the border.

''When soldiers have confidence, their naked eyes suffice. As far as communication, the commanders have Thuraya (satellite) phones,'' Khalouf answered.

Looking bewildered, the diplomat abandoned another question he had prepared about any operational plans the military had against infiltrators.

RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS Iraq leader Saddam Hussein invited Jihadists to help defend Iraq months before the 2003 invasion and an estimated 20,000 Syrians have been there since to fight US forces. Many have been arrested on their return to Syria, rights activists say.

Syrian militants tended to come from northwestern regions, where a network of religious schools has become active after a ruthless crackdown by the secular Baathist rulers in the 1980s.

A resident of the border area said Syrian authorities had been quietly arresting bedouins who helped fighters and transported them to the border along desert tracks. There are signs of increased security at Damascus airport, from where Washington says Islamist militants enter.

''There has been more Syrian action and the American troop surge in Iraq has helped, but Jihadists are still crossing into Iraq. Syria could do more,'' said another diplomat with access to Western intelligence.

''Damascus doesn't seem to have made up its mind on fully confronting the militants. You find more cooperation on the border issue from one Syrian security division but not from another,'' he said.

Dutch ambassador Diseree Bonis praised Syria for fortifying the border by reinforcing a sand barrier and building observation posts every few kilometres along a stretch running from the Tanaf crossing to Elbu Kamal to the north.

''What we have seen is a lot of Syrian posts and units on the watch out. A good effort has been put here to monitor the border and prevent all kinds of illegal crossings,'' Bonis said.

''This is good for the international community, which has an interest in a stable and united Iraq.'' OLD LINKS The border was only demarcated in 2000. Arab tribes on both sides have been linked by family relations and business ties for centuries.

In no man's land outside Tanaf, hundreds of trucks carrying Syrian supplies and transit shipments waited to enter Iraq at the al-Walid crossing . Syria remains a hub for Iraq, although the alleged infiltration has added to tension with Baghdad.

Prized pink truffles grow in the arid expanse. Smuggling and illicit activity have been rife for decades, despite the sand barrier built by Syria to prevent cars from crossing the border.

With ties between Damascus and Washington showing no sign of improvement, Syrian officials have made it clear they would not reveal fully their efforts against the militants and give the United States information free of charge.

They said Syria was working on achieving reconciliation in Iraq through its links with figures in the Baghdad government and anti-government groups. Between 1.4 million and 2 million Iraqis have fled to Syria since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Among them were Iraqi Baath Party members who have been trying to rebuild the party that ruled Iraq for 35 years before the invasion.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Western countries criticising Syria's border measures should supply Syria with advanced equipment. The Damascus government says Iraq has failed to monitor its side of the frontier effectively.

''We have to remind our critics that controlling the border is a two-way effort,'' Moualem said.

During a three-hour ride along the frontier, only one Iraqi patrol appeared, even though Anbar province on the Iraqi side has been at the heart of the Sunni revolt.

Reuters SKB VP0905

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