Forces Bolstered In Western Iraq

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

BAGHDAD, Sept. 20 -- U.S. and Iraqi commanders have begun bolstering forces in western Iraq's Euphrates River valley, hoping to choke the flow of foreign fighters along what intelligence officers say has become the primary infiltration route from Syria toward Baghdad.

The buildup, called Operation Sayaid, is aimed at securing the border area around the restive town of Qaim and suppressing other insurgent activity in the villages that hug the winding banks of the Euphrates west of Baghdad.

In recent public remarks, Iraqi Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi signaled plans to step up military operations in the valley. Gen. George W. Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview that his forces were intent on "restoring Iraqi control of its border by the end of November, before the December elections." Iraqis are expected to vote for a new parliament by Dec. 15, following a referendum Oct. 15 on the country's draft constitution.

The effort follows months of growing concern, both inside and outside U.S. military ranks, that not enough forces had been committed to the western reaches of Anbar province, a stronghold of Iraq's Sunni Arab resistance and of Abu Musab Zarqawi's foreign-dominated insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq. Although U.S. Marines have conducted a series of raids in the far west, most lasting about a week, the longer-term presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops there has been relatively small.

Out of 32,000 U.S. service members in the province, only one Marine regimental combat team -- fewer than 5,000 troops -- and some Special Operations forces have operated in the far western region.

Consequently, insurgent fighters have continued to move freely in many places, according to U.S. officers. Zarqawi's network, in particular, is said to have established safe houses throughout the valley to shelter foreign fighters who enter from Syria before moving on to stage attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.

"It's not something we haven't known about," said a senior U.S. officer involved in overseeing military operations. "It's just something we're now in position to do something about."

Plans call for adding several more battalions to the area, drawn from the U.S. Army and the Iraqi Intervention Force, one of the most seasoned of the country's military units. Commanders requested that specific troop numbers not be published.

These troops will back up a freshly trained contingent of several hundred Iraqi border guards. In time, the plan calls for thousands of soldiers belonging to Iraq's 7th Army Division, which is still being formed, to provide a permanent military presence in several towns along the river.

Success in quelling insurgent activity elsewhere in Iraq has freed some U.S. troops for reassignment to the river valley, and more Iraqi forces also have become available for duty there, U.S. officers said. In the meantime, the insurgent threat in the area has intensified, the officers added.

Until earlier this year, the main infiltration route for foreign fighters had been along a corridor in northwestern Iraq running from the border with Syria through the city of Mosul, U.S. military intelligence officers said. In May, the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was reassigned from south of Baghdad to take back the region from insurgents.

The regiment's operations west of Mosul, culminating in the assault this month on Tall Afar, plus the killing or capturing of at least 20 leading Zarqawi network operatives in Mosul since the spring by the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, have halted much of the northwestern infiltration. The traffic then shifted south through the Euphrates River valley, the intelligence officers said.

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