US says Iraqis to secure their own borders by July
WASHINGTON, Mar 24: Iraqi government security forces will take responsibility by July for securing all of Iraq's borders, a top US commander said today, giving them control over often porous frontiers with Iran and Syria.
The move is part of steps by US forces, which are engaged in fighting a bloody insurgency and sectarian strife, to let the Iraqi army and police take control over more territory and enable Washington to reduce its troops.
''There's 3,631 kilometers (2,200 miles) of borders. And by this summer -- July -- Iraq security forces will be responsible for security along that entire front,'' Army Lt Gen Martin Dempsey, who heads the US effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces, told reporters at the Pentagon from Iraq.
Iraq shares borders with Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and US and allied forces initially took responsibility for overseeing the border after invading three years ago.
US officials have said foreign fighters and financing for the insurgency have flowed in from Syria, and that Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel and components for roadside bombs have entered Iraq from Iran.
''Being able to control one's borders is an important aspect of sovereignty,'' said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
''There's no doubt that there has been a very porous border in the west (with Syria), and military operations have focused on that over the past year,'' Whitman added.
Whitman said he expected US forces would be able to assist Iraqi forces in protecting the border if needed.
Questions remain about the ability of Iraqi forces to operate independently from US forces and about their loyalties and degree of insurgent infiltration.
Last week, Army Lt Gen Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, said the plan was for Iraqi forces to control 75 per cent of Iraq's territory by ''the end of summer,'' up from less than 50 per cent currently. Dempsey today declined to project how much more territory Iraqi forces would be able to control by year's end.
Army Lt. Col Michael Negard, a military spokesman in Iraq, said 20,300 Iraqi border enforcement personnel have been trained and equipped. That lags the US goal, stated in a Pentagon report to the US Congress in February, to have had 24,000 by last Dec 15. The report said the ultimate goal was for 28,000 border police trained and equipped by May to man a total of 258 border posts and forts.
Negard added that 216 border forts had been completed, and 42 were under construction. The Pentagon report said this construction had lagged due to contractor delays, restricted movement because of military operations, weather issues, and the remoteness of some locations.
Officials noted the continuing logistics support provided by American forces to all Iraqi security forces, who number about 240,000. There are about 131,000 US troops in Iraq.
US officials said last month that none of the Iraqi security battalions had the capability of operating and sustaining themselves independently of US forces.
Dempsey, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, said the goal was to have regional depots to provide equipment and supplies to Iraqi security forces built by about October.
''Now, it's important to note that building it doesn't mean it's going to spring into action immediately. It's going to take some time,'' Dempsey said.