Last August the Iraqi government decided to shut down the Mandali border crossing between Iraq and Iran in Diyala Governorate. In justifying the move, it described Mandali as an informal crossing that had been used for illicit trade and for the unauthorized movement of people and goods.
According to Iraqi media outlets, criminal organizations had smuggled narcotics into Iraq through there. The area is heavily controlled by Shi‘a militias, who have moved personnel and weapons with relative freedom. Diyala has gained strategic significance for paramilitary groups backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, given its location between the Iranian border and Baghdad, a region segmented by ethnic and sectarian fault lines.
Since the fall of the Ba‘th regime in 2003, the Iraqi state’s control over borderlands and border crossings has been considerably weakened. As the fragile state directed its resources and manpower toward securing central areas of Iraq and other strategically vital locations, several border areas and geographic peripheries became places of lawlessness and contestation by local groups, foreign powers, criminal organizations, and insurgents.
For example, at one time the areas of western ‘Anbar and Nineveh Governorates were strongholds for Al-Qa‘eda in Mesopotamia and its later incarnation, the Islamic State. Similarly, the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have de facto control over Kurdistan’s border crossings with Turkey and Iran. Even Iraq’s ports in the south have been deeply infiltrated by militias and informal networks, with some docking zones having fallen under the control of political parties, militias, and nonstate actors.
The state’s inability to impose control over Iraq’s western border helped the Islamic State to control territory in both Iraq and Syria. The group moved from these peripheries into major cities such as Mosul and Raqqa. The Islamic State formed what it called Wilayat al-Furat, or Euphrates Province, combining the Iraqi town of Qaim and the Syrian town of Albukamal into a single administrative unit. The geographic and cultural proximity of the two towns tempted the Islamic State to make this newly established province a place where it would eliminate the border and in that way create its supranational state. Indeed, for a few years the border ceased to exist in that location and people traveled between Qaim, Albukamal, and Deir Ezzor relatively freely.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.