Customs police keep eye on smugglers

28 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Supported from the air by Marine helicopter gun ships and on the ground by infantry and military police patrols, the customs police from An Najaf, Iraq takes on smugglers and saboteurs in the barren desert land around the city. 

Reorganized after the fall of Iraq's former regime, the customs unit in Najaf have been training and patrolling with elements of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based in 29 Palms, Calif.

After absorbing the professional techniques of the Marines they train with, the customs police, whose members were recruited from former military and Iraqi police units, consider themselves an elite force -- honored-bound to protect Iraq's natural treasures.

Although they have nationwide jurisdiction and are eager to go after any criminal, their main focus is on stopping smugglers who are tap into pipelines that run throughout the area and steal thousands of gallons of fuel that is sold on the black market.

Part of the reason for Iraq's long gas lines can be traced to the theft of fuel, according to Army Staff Sgt. Martin Antone, a public safety advisor with the Green Bay, Wis.-based 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, and attached to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines' governate support team.  

"Of course it makes me angry," said customs police Sgt. Rasheid Zabala, through an interpreter.  "They are taking away Iraq's future from its people."

During a patrol on July 28, the customs unit checked reports passed along to them from the Marines, who have monitored the pipelines in an attempt to catch the black marketers in the act.

Backed-up with a team of soldiers from the 488th Military Police Company of Fort Benning, Ga., Zabala has a clear view of the damage left behind.

"Ali-baba! Ali-baba," shouts Zabala as he points to his right side.  Mounds of dirt have been piled up and black stained desert tells the story that the smugglers have been here and gone, but left untold damage to the environment.

"The biggest crime we are dealing with right now is the theft of oil," said Col. Hussein Oiez Alghazale, chief of Customs Police in Najaf, through an interpreter.  "This is the safest place in Iraq but we must stop the criminals who are trying to destroy the city and our peace."

Dressed in white shirts and armed with semi-automatic rifles, police officers jump out of their vehicles to provide security for the investigators.  The amount of profit from fuel theft is too large and requires too many resources for the Iraqis not to take precautions, according Alghazale.

"Sometimes at night we run into drug dealers with heavy weapons like RPG's," said Alghazale, who is a native of Najaf.  "This is why we need heavy weapons too.  We like working with coalition forces but this is my country and it is my job to catch the criminals and take them to jail."

While Antone and Alghazale look over the crime scene, the customs officers form a protective barrier around them.

"These guys are pretty good, they have a good perimeter going," said Army Spc. Ryan T. Mauk, a military policeman from Claysburg, Penn.  "They look like soldiers."

Turing around, Antone, an Army reservist, smiles at the comment.  He has been working with the customs police for months.  As a sergeant detective with a police department in Oneida, Wis., Antone shares his civilian job experience with the Iraqi cops.

"We laid it on them pretty hard at first," he said. "They're sharp now and they look out for each other."

In spite of the blistering heat, the customs police officers maintain their positions while the investigation draws on.  Working with the Marines and soldiers, they not only take in new skills, but also draw confidence from them.

"With coalition forces here we feel we have more freedom than when the old regime was here," said Alghazale who started his law enforcement career 14 years ago in Najaf.  "We now have more respect than when Saddam Hussein was in power."

Politics aside, other officers have a more practical reason for working closely with the Marines.  With only four months on the job, Officer Ali Alwallie had a hard time convincing his fiancé that he should become a customs officer. 

"She is afraid that it is too dangerous for me," said Alwallie, who plans on getting married after he gets his first raise in a few months.  "I tell her not to be afraid, because I am with the coalition."