When U.S. soldiers reached this stretch of Iraq's border with Syria, some expected to face off against foreign fighters they thought would...

Share story

SINJAR, Iraq — When U.S. soldiers reached this stretch of Iraq’s border with Syria, some expected to face off against foreign fighters they thought would be crossing into the country in trucks packed with weapons.

Instead, they found caravans of mules crossing the border without their human masters, the clever tactic of smugglers in Syria who load contraband on dozens of mules or donkeys and set them free to amble down familiar paths.

“They can just smack the mules on the rear and they’ll meet them at a rallying point” across the border, said 1st Lt. Scott Weaver of Susanville, Calif., an intelligence officer with the 1st Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols this area.

Though smugglers here mostly traffic in gasoline and cigarettes — sometimes up to $200,000 worth of cargo in one trip — military officials say the trade helps fund the insurgency that has gripped cities to the east such as Tal Afar and Mosul.

U.S. and Iraqi officials frequently call on Syria to close its side of the border. But the smuggling problem also has roots on the Iraqi side. Some Iraqis in the area consider their ties to the government second to those with their fellow tribesmen.

“It’s not a geographic boundary. It is a political boundary where the British and French divvied things up” after World War I, said Capt. James Pavlich.

In one Sunni-Arab Iraqi border town, the sheik also oversees villages in Syria, crossing the border to visit family, U.S. soldiers said.

Tensions between Kurdish and Arab guards are also evident, U.S. soldiers said, underscoring the social strains in this diverse area. U.S. forces have recently been added to the crossing to check the work of border guards and to watch for fake passports.