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 Commanders requested that specific troop numbers not be published.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.
"Right now, this is the key," said Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq.
The first phase of Operation Sayaid came in July when an Army squadron of Stryker vehicles, augmented for intelligence gathering, rolled south from Mosul to set up an outpost near the Euphrates River town of Rawah. The contingent of more than 1,000 troops established an American presence on the north side of the river; the Marines had been operating on the south side. Also arriving in Rawah was an Iraqi Intervention Force battalion.
The troops have imposed tight controls on traffic that now must use the single bridge in Rawah. U.S. warplanes this month blew up two smaller pontoon bridges farther west in the towns of Karabilah and New Ubaydi, making the Rawah river crossing even more critical.
Bolstering forces as far west as Qaim, the offensive is designed to restore Iraqi control in the area rather than completely shut the border. Still, the operation is considered key to reducing insurgent activity before the December elections.
"There's no expectation that the border will be sealed," said another senior U.S. military officer. "But the presence of Iraqi border forces and Iraqi army forces, backed up by coalition forces -- that's what we're going to achieve by November 30. So you'll have a lot more people who can dominate the area, which means you will certainly have denied sanctuary for insurgents."
U.S. military estimates of the number of insurgents in the area range from 1,500 to 2,500, with 100 to 150 foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria each month, one or two at a time. The insurgents intimidate residents and exert control in villages where U.S. and Iraqi forces have no permanent presence, U.S. officers said. Even where troops do patrol, in such towns as Hit, Haditha and Qaim, the insurgents operate in small cells, U.S. intelligence officers said.
About 250,000 people live in the area between Qaim and Rawah, their small houses and villages closely spaced through the valley. Apart from a narrow belt of cultivated land about a mile wide on each side of the river, most of the territory to the north and south is barren and inhospitable.
Although it represents a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, the new push into the Euphrates valley could fall short of a decisive turn in the conflict -- particularly if, as in previous U.S. offensives in the country, insurgents duck away from the fight hoping to return after U.S. forces withdraw.
One factor raising the chances that the valley, if secured this time, will remain that way is the Iraqi government's intention to keep several Iraqi brigades stationed there, U.S. officers said.
"We can't afford to let the enemy get dug into another safe haven," Casey said.
Army Col. Robert B. Brown, the 1st Brigade commander whose forces set up the outpost at Rawah, agreed. "I think it's smart to focus on the west because that's where your martyrs are coming from," he said. "I don't know if you can ever stop it totally, but you can clearly disrupt the heck out of them."