US Establishes First Base on Syrian-Iraq Border
John Hendren of the LA Times reports that "The U.S. military hopes its first long-term presence near Iraq's border with Syria will help stem the flow of suicide bombers." The Base is at Rawah north of the Euphrates River along the strategic route that connects the Syrian border to roads leading north toward Mosul and southeast to Baghdad. It is high time the US and Iraq forces developed a permanent presence near the border. The base may also offer the US the capability of pressuring Syria by crossing the border in "hot pursuit" operations. Here is the article:
Base Set Up to Curb Rebels
BAGHDAD — American troops have established the first long-term military base along a major smuggling route near the Syrian border in a new effort to block potential suicide bombers from reaching targets in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities.
A force of 1,800 U.S. troops, responding to continuing concerns that foreign fighters are crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, recently began an operation that includes setting up the base, three miles from the crossroads town of Rawah.
By establishing for the first time a base north of the Euphrates River along the strategic route that connects the Syrian border to roads leading north toward Mosul and southeast to Baghdad, military strategists hope to prevent foreign fighters, who they say are aligned with Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, from reaching their targets.
"Religious extremists entering Iraq are a threat to the government. They're being used to do to Iraqis what they are unwilling to do to themselves — commit mass murder of innocents. [Zarqawi] is trying to use them to foment civil war," Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the top ground commander for the coalition in Iraq, said in an interview.
"So in addition to assisting the Iraqis in reestablishing control of the borders," Vines said, the military needs to deny access to "areas that are being used to train, indoctrinate and coordinate the movement of these religious extremists into areas where they're being used as suicide murderers in the eastern provinces, including Baghdad and Mosul."
The American forces began arriving July 16 in the region, where they occasionally have carried out incursions in the last two years to fight insurgents. The region has long been viewed as a key staging area for insurgent activities, but U.S. intelligence suggests that the problem has increased in recent months as foreign fighters have used it to smuggle an increasingly lethal variety of explosives, including car bombs.
The new offensive comes at a time when Vines and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, have been talking openly about the possibility of substantial reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq beginning next spring.
The new operation underscores the difficulty of trying to seal off the lengthy border where foreign fighters are known to frequently cross. Some U.S. military officials acknowledge that even with the base, they probably will never be able to fully close off the border.
At the same time, the operation is deemed vital to ongoing efforts to reduce insurgent violence before a planned national referendum in October. American officials hope that as a permanent Iraqi government is established in coming months, order can be better restored, thus enabling U.S. forces to begin pulling out.
U.S. military officials in Iraq say the operation near Rawah is their top priority. In the last two weeks, the military has been building structures at the new base and American troops have begun arriving at the facility. The base as been set up far enough from the town so that insurgents seeking to launch mortar and rocket attacks would have to do so from the open desert, where they are more likely to be seen.
A mission statement viewed by a Los Angeles Times reporter states the military's goal is to disrupt Zarqawi's organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and establish Iraqi government control of the border, driving a wedge between the militants and the Iraqi population and eliminating a "safe haven" for insurgents.
The battle plan calls for U.S. troops to launch a series of raids, secure the area and bring in Iraqi security forces. Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi referred briefly to the operation after meeting Thursday with President Jalal Talabani.
"Our forces will start from the Syrian border … till we reach Ramadi, then to Fallouja," he said. "We have taken precise measures on the ground and acquired the president's approval to start the operation."
As in Fallouja, in western Iraq, where U.S. forces fought in November to oust insurgents, U.S. military officials have asked the Iraqi government to issue emergency laws that could include a curfew and a travel ban.
The operation, the largest in western Iraq since May when 100 alleged foreign fighters were killed in Operation Matador, is key to fulfilling an order from Casey: that Iraq's borders be secured by November.
Foreign fighters are believed to have been crossing into the country from Syria since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After a recent crackdown along the rocky northern border near Mosul, they have been forced to enter farther south, U.S. officials said. Rawah is of strategic importance for insurgents seeking to reach Baghdad from that portion of Syria because it is just north of a bridge on the Euphrates River that links the area to the road to Baghdad.
Smugglers who for years trafficked in cigarettes, gasoline and sheep are now being paid to bring in foreign fighters, explosives and weapons, senior military officials said. Commanders are especially eager to seize members of Zarqawi's group who are believed to have escaped there from Fallouja in November.
The 2nd Infantry Division's Stryker Brigade Combat Team is leading the operation and is the first to take up a permanent presence in the area. Officials say it has been difficult, if not impossible, for U.S.-led forces to control the region without such a commitment.
"It's a huge, desolate place and if somebody wanted to hide out it would be a good place to hide out," Marine Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, commander of coalition forces in western Iraq, said in an interview in Fallouja.
As the operation unfolds, Marines would continue to hold the region south of the Euphrates, while the Stryker Brigade, which has been based in Mosul, pushes south, putting insurgents in a "vice," a senior U.S. military strategist said.
The unfamiliar whoosh of helicopter rotors and the sight of the Army brigade's Stryker vehicles engaged in battles along largely rural roadways have prompted hundreds and possibly thousands of the estimated 20,000 people in Rawah to flee in fear of an attack similar to the one in Fallouja, officials said.
Local media have reported that as many as 80% of the residents have left. American military leaders say that the actual number appears to be far lower.
U.S. military surveillance photos said to be of the area near the town of Qaim separating Syria from Iraq show breaks in a massive berm. U.S. military strategists say the photos also show "personnel loading trucks" and a lookout point atop one building with a view across the border.
Troops from the Stryker Brigade recently chased a suspected car bomber across the river at Rawah and forced him out of the car, a senior military officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A second car arrived and apparently detonated the first vehicle, killing the bomber before driving off.
A U.S. military official said the incident revealed the extent to which "handlers" monitored would-be suicide bombers to prevent them from backing out. In the first four days of the military operation, U.S. troops encountered two car bombers and several mortar and rocket attacks, officials said.
Military spokesmen did not release any information on whether there had been any injuries or deaths related to the operation.
The effort to install more Iraqi border posts and seal the frontier with Syria would have its limitations, commanders acknowledged.
Even then, "there'll probably still be smuggling across the border, as there are on a lot of borders," said Johnson, the Marine commander.
But American military strategists say insurgents will have to work harder and travel farther as a result of the operation.
"They want an area where they can plan, train, indoctrinate terrorists before they are employed elsewhere in country. In western Al Anbar they were less likely to be disrupted before they are ready to be employed, due to the relatively small presence of coalition and Iraqi security forces," said Vines, the coalition's ground commander. "Insurgents must not be allowed sanctuaries where they feel safe and operate with impunity. Indicators are that terrorists felt that parts of western Al Anbar had become a sanctuary."