Kurds See Political Motive Behind Border Closure

Kurdish traders hit hard by border crossing closure - seen by some as bid by Baghdad to put squeeze on Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Kurds See Political Motive Behind Border Closure

Kurdish traders hit hard by border crossing closure - seen by some as bid by Baghdad to put squeeze on Iraqi-Kurdistan.

The closure of a major crossing point on the Iraq-Iran border two months ago is an attempt by the government to undermine the Iraqi-Kurdistan region, some senior Kurdish figures believe.

Hundreds of mainly Kurdish traders have lost substantial sums of money, since the Munthiriya crossing was closed on February 15.

As well as losses incurred from not being able to deliver goods to customers, the traders are also paying to keep their merchandise in storage.

All entry points into Iraq were shut as part of the Iraqi government’s efforts to support the new Baghdad security plan - a joint US-Iraqi operation to secure and stabilise the capital, launched more than a month ago.

Border posts were soon re-opened, with one exception - Munthiriya, the only official crossing point between Iraq and Iran in the Kurdistan region, which is only opened only for fuel deliveries.

Kurds now suspect ulterior political motives behind the closure of this crossing point, so vital to Kurdish economic interests.

Munthiriya, which lies seven kilometres west of the Kurdish-controlled town of Khanaqin, is administered by the Arab province of Diyala, but guarded by Kurdish soldiers, part of a brigade of 1,500 men - reporting to the Iraqi ministry of defence - which patrols a 200km stretch of the frontier with Iran.

One of the fiercest frontlines during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, it is now considered the safest part of the border between the two countries.

While it was in operation, around 90 trucks - full of food, fuel, construction materials and merchandise, such as electrical appliances - crossed the frontier at Munthiriya every day, along with dozens of people.

According to Kurdish officials, the central government in Baghdad has given no clear reason for keeping the crossing point closed, despite repeated requests to either explain the decision or to re-open it.

The Kurdish brigade guarding this stretch of the border has received dozens of letters of support from both Iraqi and American officials for the tight security they maintain.

According to figures provided by the border authorities, thousands of people have been arrested for illegally crossing the frontier since the Iraqi war in 2003.

Since then, there has been only one violent border incident, during which insurgents were forced to retreat after facing fierce resistance from the soldiers.

"Our border has been the safest one and we have never let terrorists infiltrate [Iraq] from here," said Brigadier Sarchil Abdul-Kareem, a brigade spokesman.

Abdul-Kareem said that he believes the Baghdad security plan was not the real reason for the border closure, claiming that the move was part of an “Arabization policy”, alluding to the former Ba’ath regime’s strategy of expelling Kurds from certain areas and replacing them with Arabs.

Last year, the Iraqi government sent an Arab brigadier-general with Arab forces from the south to replace Kurdish units in the area. But under pressure from local Kurds, the Arabs returned south.

The Iraqi government has now opened a new crossing point at Zirbata in the province Kut, in southeast Iraq, to replace Munthiriya.

There are two other border crossings in eastern Iraqi-Kurdistan - Bashmakh and Haji Omeran - which are under the control of the Kurdistan regional government.

They are not as wide as Munthiriya, open for limited trade only, and are not recognised by Iran as official crossing points.

"This (Munthiriya) was an international crossing-border, but they have closed it… so that the economy of Kurdistan will not develop," said Brigadier Abdul-Kareem.

But Brigadier Khalid Suleiman, head of border administration in the Munthiriya area, said that while the authorities haven’t told him the reason for the closure, he doesn’t believe it is a politically motivated move.

After becoming frustrated with central government over the border crossing issue, a number of Kurdish officials - including Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government - have sought to put pressure on Baghdad to reopen Munthiriya.

They have spoken to the Iraqi council of ministers and the ministry of interior - but to no avail.

Brigadier-General Nazim Shareef, in charge of Kurdish troops at the border, refused to comment, saying he has been ordered not to speak to the media.

The frontier authorities at Munthiriya report that around 1,000 workers, drivers and businessmen have lost their jobs because of the closure.

Ari Khalid Mahmood, 27, a food trader who regularly uses the crossing point, said, "My partners and I have lost a lot of money. We are still paying for a cargo of rice in storage on the other side of the border."

Rather than travel south to use the new border crossing at Zirbata, Mahmood pays 1,300 US dollars a month to keep his 80 tonnes of goods in storage on the Iranian side of the frontier.

"We are not familiar with the geography of the south and we don’t want to put our lives in danger," he said.

He said that he is unwilling to use another crossing after a friend of his tried unsuccessfully to ship a consignment of goods from Basra. The cargo was confiscated by militants on its way to Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Like some senior Kurdish figures, he believes the Iraqi government wants to hurt the economy of the Kurdistan region. "The Iraqi government doesn’t want the Kurdish areas to flourish economically," he said.

But Abas al-Bayati, a member of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi government, insisted that the closure of Munthiriya was due to security concerns along the border.

"There are movements of Mujahideen al-Khalq (an Iranian opposition group) and some other armed groups," he said, adding that Iraqi troops had been deployed along the Iranian border in Dyala province to combat these groups.

Bayati said that other border crossings had been opened to compensate for the closure of Munthiriya, dismissing claims that it had been shut for political reasons.

Wrya Hama-Tahir is an IWPR trainee reporter. Bassim al-Sharaa, an IWPR trainee reporter, in Baghdad also contributed to this report.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).
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