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How Iraq is planning to secure key border road

US security companies have been assigned to secure highways linking southern Iraq to the West, but it may face many difficulties, including being targeted by armed militias.
Iraqi government forces and local tribal fighters drive on the highway between the city of Ramadi and the town of Rutba as they take part in an operation to retake Rutba from the Islamic State jihadist group on May 16, 2016.
Special forces, soldiers, police, border guards and pro-government paramilitaries are involved in the operation to retake the Anbar province town, which has been held by the jihadist group since 2014, Iraq's Joint Operations Command said. / AFP / MOADH AL-DULAIMI        (Photo credit sh

BAGHDAD — Iraq is trying to revive the Trebil border crossing between Iraq and Jordan, which was closed in 2014 after the Islamic State (IS) took control of Anbar province. But the highway from Baghdad toward the crossing is not safe and has been the stage of terrorist attacks for a while, most recently the IS attack on an Iraqi security forces’ convoy April 22 in the Al-Sakkar area east of Rutba on the highway near the Jordanian border. As a result, 10 security officers were killed and 20 others were injured. Following the incident, soldiers of the Eighth Brigade deployed in Rutba appealed to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for equipment and weapons to secure the international highway between Ramadi and Rutba to avoid surprise attacks by IS sleeper cells.

Due to the imminent threats to the road, which is one of Iraq’s vital economic lines as it connects Basra in the south to Jordan in the west, Iraq commissioned an American company to secure and rebuild the road. The contract also included reconstructing bridges, 36 of which are destroyed.

A government source close to Abadi told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “In his recent visit to Baghdad, Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, discussed with Iraqi officials the issue of securing the Baghdad-Terbil and the Safwan-Terbil crossings.”

The source added, “There is US and Iraqi governmental interest in securing the two roads leading to the Terbil border crossing between Baghdad and Basra. Jordan shares the same interest because it wants to revive trade exchange between the two countries.” Abadi had voiced his intention to commission this task to American companies during his office meeting with the representatives of parliamentary blocs in the Iraqi parliament in March.

Anbar spokesman Eid Ammash told Al-Monitor, “Olive [which merged with the US’ Constellis Group in 2015], will secure the road between Baghdad and Anbar, reaching the Terbil border crossing that leads to Jordan. The company has already signed a contract with the Iraqi federal government in this regard.”

He added, “The company will work independently, and there won’t be any meddling in its work. But it will coordinate with the federal and local governments and will submit monthly reports about its work to the local Anbar government.”

Fahed Rashed, the head of the Border Crossings Committee in Anbar, said April 6, “5,000 volunteers hailing from tribes will participate alongside Olive company to secure the highway in Anbar.”

Although Abadi talked about securing the road between Safwan in south Iraq and Terbil in the west, Jabar al-Saidi, the head of the security committee in the Basra provincial council, and council member Ahmad al-Saliti claimed they did not know about such an agreement.

Apparently, local officials in Iraq do not know about the Safwan-Terbil road plan so far and that the understandings are restricted to the company and federal government. 

A security source from the Iraqi intelligence service told Al-Monitor, “The American company will only secure the two roads reaching Terbil from Basra and Baghdad and will build gas stations and rest areas, in addition to building bridges and cordoning off the roads with barbed wires, as per distances that would be determined later.”

The source added, “The company will appropriate helicopters and will work on providing air protection for the road in case of emergency, in cooperation with the Iraqi government.”

Leaders of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Karim al-Nouri and Rayan al-Kaldani, in a joint statement about the American companies, told Al-Monitor, “These companies signed contracts with Abadi’s government. The PMU is affiliated with him since he is the general chief of staff of armed forces, and we cannot but agree with him.”

Nouri added, “The PMU cannot have a different stance than that of the Iraqi government vis-a-vis the security companies, although they are affiliated with a state that occupied Iraq and so their presence in Iraq is not justifiable.”

Although the stances of Nouri and Kaldani reassured the companies that they will not be targets of the PMU and its factions, the danger persists, especially since there are armed Shiite factions not under the umbrella of the state-affiliated PMU.

Armed men affiliated with political parties or tribes that are geographically close to the companies’ locations might target these companies to get jobs or might attempt to impose royalties on them. This has happened before with oil companies operating in Iraq.

Iraq’s Hezbollah Brigades said in a statement released March 31, “The road connecting Iraq and Jordan is a strategic gateway allowing the US and forces seeking to control it to tighten their grip on Anbar and the potential Sunni region as per a US-Gulf plan.”

In the same vein, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq said, “The US security companies are spies for the US intelligence, according to a March 30 statement by the group's military spokesman Jawad al-Tibawi. The movement headed by Qais al-Khazali called for resorting to alternative companies from Russia and Europe.

On April 9, Khazali said during a speech at Al-Qasim Green University in Babil, “When the Iraqi government commissions the security of the road connecting Baghdad, Anbar and the Jordanian borders to a US security company, this must not be taken lightly.”

He added, threateningly, “Iraq has a replenished army of 300,000 soldiers, a Ministry of Interior with 600,000 employees and two mobilization units — a popular and a tribal one. Does it really need a US security company to secure the road connecting its center to its west side?”

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