Digging out a living in Iraq's Anbar province

Digging out a living in Iraq's Anbar province
2 min read
06 May, 2015
Feature: Tunnels built to smuggle goods and fighters between Iraq and Syria are providing a lifeline for the besieged residents of Anbar, reports Ahmad al-Naemi.
Security is tight along the Iraqi-Syrian border [AFP]

Abu Kamel al-Mahallawi has been facing a daily struggle to provide for his family for the past six months. He lives in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, which is under siege and cut off from the rest of the country.

Anbar's border with Syria is the last lifeline for thousands of residents. Food and medicine is brought from Lebanon via Syria.

When the international coalition's air raids began in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State group, security was tightened along the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent the movement of militants. In response IS dug a network of tunnels to allow weapons and fighters to be transferred across the border.

Smugglers have also dug tunnels to move food, medicine and livestock into Iraq.

"Tunnels are effective for avoiding air raids, and pose a great challenge to modern armies. Palestinians especially in Gaza are the leading experts at digging tunnels," said Abdul Jabbar al-Karbouli, a security expert and former Iraqi army colonel.

     Even Saddam Hussein's regime was unable to completely control the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Many military operations have taken place and watch towers have been built along the 600km border to control the smuggling of arms and fighters. Karbouli, however, says these efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

Khaled al-Anbari works as a tunnel smuggler. He described the situation along the border as a "tunnel war" between the Iraqi government and armed groups.

"The tunnels are also used by politicians who have made billions of dollars from the smuggling of antiquities and drugs across the border," added Anbari.

Even Saddam Hussein's regime was unable to completely control the Iraqi-Syrian border. Numerous armed confrontations took place in the 1990s between Iraqi authorities and smuggling gangs.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed met an Iraqi smuggler who called himself "Wayfarer". He explained that smuggling continued across the border during the US occupation. However, last year the Iraqi government tightened security in Anbar. This forced smugglers and armed groups to dig tunnels across the border.

Anbari said that most tunnels are no longer than 3km.

Wayfarer said that the tunnels were initially used for smuggling, but since fighting in the area has intensified they have been used to attack Iraqi security forces. 

IS built a 1.5km tunnel from Ramadi, west of Baghdad, to one of the largest military bases in the area. The militant group filled the tunnel with five tons of explosives and blew it up. The base was completely destroyed and more than 50 soldiers were killed, according to security sources.

Ali al-Dulaimi, a security analyst, said the government lacks the means to impose the necessary security measures to protect the area. He added that the government needs to adopt policies that minimise the sense of marginalisation felt by border residents, which pushing them to turn to such activities.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.