A member of the Saudi border guards force stands guard next to a fence on Saudi Arabia’s northern borderline with Iraq on Monday. Image Credit: REUTERS

Arar, Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia has deployed helicopters and boosted patrols along its 800-kilometre northern border with Iraq, where it faces security threats from both sides in a deepening sectarian conflict.

The National Guard and the Ministry of Defence added 1,000 men each as border patrols increase, and helicopters were sent to the area at the end of June, General Faleh Al Subaie, commander of the Saudi Border Guard in the north, said on Monday in the city of Arar. That’s the command centre for the Arar crossing station, about 60 kilometres away, where fences and 7 metre-high sand berms separate Opec’s two largest oil producers.

Saudi Arabia has ramped up security to prevent attacks from Sunni Islamist militants, who have already seized large swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq, and from Shiite militias who are aligned with Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Iraq’s deepening sectarian conflict has raised concerns that the region’s biggest economy may be targeted by either group.

The unrest has “confirmed the Saudis’ worst fears about lingering instability and sectarianism in Iraq”, said Fahd Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc, a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia. “It makes perfect sense that the Saudis would reinforce the border.”

Some Sunni groups have criticised Saudi Arabia for its ties with the United States, while Shiites in Iraq have blamed it for supporting militants.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been strained since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia has links with Iraq’s Sunni community, who dominated the government before the fall of Saddam Hussain and now complain of discrimination under Al Maliki’s Shiite leadership.

There’s no Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and little commercial contact between the two countries. The customs and immigration buildings were closed when reporters visited the Arar border crossing on Monday during a trip organised by the interior ministry. The crossing is open only during the Haj pilgrimage.

Along the border, the number of “cars, cameras and men have been increased”, Al Subaie said in his office in Arar city. “We are ready to protect the country,” he said.

Al Subaie’s forces monitor the border from observation towers with cameras and motion detectors. At the operation centre in Arar, which is the capital of the Northern Border province, computer screens show radar sweeping territory for vehicles or other signs of illegal activity, while along the border soldiers in bulletproof vests patrol in trucks with machine guns mounted on the back.

“We are watching the Iraqis all the time,” Capt Fares Al Bukhairi said at a Saudi post along the border. Trucks mounted with machine guns were lined up outside the building. Iraqi forces were visible from the last position in Saudi territory.

The Saudi government spent $3.4 billion (Dh12.49 billion) to build the northern border security system, Saudi media reported last month, without saying where it got the information. The hi-tech surveillance is focused on a border that’s demarcated by three fences and two sand berms, with signs warning people from entering the area between the two countries.

Even with the increased security, threats remain. Three rockets were fired at the border area on July 7, landing close to a housing complex for border guards near Arar. The craters they left are still visible, and pieces of shrapnel are spread across the sand. The rockets were Grad-type Katyushas, according to Al Subaie.

“We aren’t exactly sure” who fired the rockets, said Capt Sultan Al Mutairi, who works in the intelligence department gathering information on the border. The perpetrators want to create problems with Iraq, he said.

A few days before the rocket attack, Islamist militants killed four Saudi soldiers near the Yemen border, and two of the attackers blew themselves up in a suicide strike on a Saudi intelligence building, according to the Interior Ministry.

The incident has made border security “an even bigger priority”, said Nazer, who also worked as an analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington.