Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Operation Iron Fist on Iraqi Border Empties out the Towns

AP reports that at least 28 militants were killed in fighting Sunday at the Iraq border with Syria, bringing the two-day toll among the insurgents to 36.

Most of the militants appeared to have slipped out of Sadah, the first village attacked, and hundreds of the village's residents fled into Syria ahead of the assault.

The U.S. operation in the Syrian border region is the fourth since May, but U.S. troops are too scattered and Iraqi forces too few to impose permanent control in the area the size of West Virginia. Militants have fled past assaults only to move back in once the bulk of U.S. forces leave.
Meanwhile the local population is being driven from its homes and many thousands are fleeing into Syria, where 250,000 Iraqis have already registered with the UNHCR since the beginning of the war. The government estimates that over 500,000 Iraqis are resident in Syria. The ICRC sends this report about the earlier US and Pesh-merga operation at Tel-Afar
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) estimates at around 5,000 the number of families from Tal-Afar in northern Iraq that have had to flee their homes and take refuge in surrounding towns and villages following the escalation of violence in the city. While some are staying with friends or relatives, others are living in abandoned villages or small camps, with no access to such basic items as food, water or bedding. The IRCS has set up camps around Tal-Afar to host displaced families.

The ICRC has supplied the IRCS’s Mosul branch with 5,000 individual food baskets, 1,000 jerrycans, 1,000 buckets, 1,000 blankets, 100 tents, 600 kerosene stoves and 600 hygiene kits. In addition, the ICRC has supplied 50 stretchers to the IRCS and 50 to the Directorate of Health.
It will take very decisive action on Syria's part to keep Iraqi refugees from organizing once they get to Syria and returning to fight. Here is the longer but more confusing New York Times report of October 3, 2005. Craig Smith also suggests that the US will not be able to hold the territory it is sweeping over, and thus will content itself with temporarily disrupting insurgent bases and driving the inhabitants from their villages.

U.S. and Iraq Step Up Effort to Block Insurgents' Routes

RAWA, Iraq - A few miles outside this sleepy river town, marked in many places with black spray-painted scrawls hailing the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, called Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, American troops are building a desert outpost of plywood huts protected by dirt-filled blast barriers and surrounded by a high berm.

American military commanders see this effort as a crucial step in their strategy of cutting off the supply of foreign fighters that has fed the insurgency and threatens to tip the country into civil war.

Attention has focused recently on the northern city of Tal Afar, another entry point for foreign fighters, where 8,500 American and Iraqi troops have been fighting insurgents since early September.

But the greater battle lies ahead, in the towns in the Euphrates River valley, where for nearly two years Mr. Zarqawi's fighters have had free rein, blowing up police stations and building a network of safe houses to stockpile weapons, make car bombs and move fighters into the country from Syria.

Foreigners who infiltrated Iraq through the network are believed to have carried out most of the suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere that have become among the most visible and destabilizing tools of the insurgency.

Now, American and Iraqi forces are trying to change that by occupying towns like Rawa and installing Iraqi Army battalions to keep insurgents at bay. They engaged in heavy fighting with insurgents recently in Ramadi, a major city on the river, and they continued to carry out airstrikes and ground raids against insurgent safe houses along the Syrian border. But American military officials say the strategy, which residents say is killing civilians, is not enough.

American military officials have said they know of no civilian casualties, but emphasize that other measures are needed.

"You can go through these towns again and again, but you can't get results unless you are there to stay," said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, which is responsible for a vast area of western Iraq south of the Euphrates. "As Iraqis are getting trained, we're going back to take these towns and build bases inside for both Iraqi and American forces."

Rawa, built on a finger of land formed by a hairpin turn in the Euphrates, overlooks a major bridge that was an important site in Mr. Zarqawi's network, military officials say. "We believe it was the last point at which they would decide to send the foreigners south to Baghdad or north across the desert to Mosul," said Lt. Col. Mark Davis, who commands the new Army outpost.

The town of 20,000 remains a Baathist stronghold, where animosity toward the American effort runs deep. Army intelligence officers say they believe that some former high-ranking Baathist military figures here have provided active support for the Zarqawi network, but they say the mujahedeen have become the dominant power in the area.

"Al Qaeda came in and established a network along the river valley, and made it stronger based on the lack of coalition presence here," Colonel Davis said. On the sign welcoming people to Rawa, the insurgents wrote: "Long live the mujahedeen. To fight for Islam is an obligation of all Muslims."

Rawa did not exactly send out the Welcome Wagon after the Stryker Brigade Combat Team from the Second Infantry Division arrived in late July. In little more than a month, the unit was hit by two dozen roadside bombs and eight suicide car bombs. It has been backed by two airstrikes; one on an armor-hardened safe house with a large weapons cache and another on a building booby-trapped with artillery shells.

Officers say they have received little cooperation from the town's residents, many of whom are convinced the Americans will pull out when the rains come and turn their desert outpost into a lake of viscous mud.

In fact, there is only a sporadic American military presence outside the few towns now occupied.

Neither the Army nor the Marines maintain any permanent checkpoints along the road from the Syrian border to Haditha, another town reportedly controlled by Mr. Zarqawi's mujahedeen. The road, which leads to Baghdad, is the primary route for foreign fighters headed for suicide attacks in the capital.

The Marines and the Army rely on periodic checkpoints to catch drivers by surprise. Four of six such operations in a two-week period in August stopped vehicles apparently carrying insurgents, suggesting that men and matériel continue to move despite the American presence. One car turned up guns, grenades, ammunition and a computer storage device filled with files dealing with the insurgency. One of the guns was an M-16 assault rifle taken from a dead marine.

But each of the temporary checkpoints lasts only a few hours and the searches are cursory.

Part of the problem is the size of the force. The Army has about 800 soldiers on the base but only about 300 leave the outpost on operations and never all at the same time. They must cover an expanse of desert, north of the river to the Syrian border, that is the size of Vermont. The Marines, with 3,000 troops covering an even larger area, suffer from the same problem south of the river.

"We have more men on the way," said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the highest-ranking military commander in Iraq, during a brief stopover at the desert outpost. He said an Iraqi Army division, the Seventh, which would have about 4,000 men, was now being formed for Anbar Province, the predominantly Sunni area that includes the northern Euphrates Valley.

The United States Army is running daily patrols through the narrow, hilly streets of Rawa and westward to the Syrian border, along with 500 Iraqi soldiers who are based in an unfinished water treatment plant.

In one recent operation in Rawa, the Iraqi forces, protected by Stryker combat vehicles and Army snipers, fanned out across a hillside of new villas, crumbling outbuildings and trash-strewn lots, hunting for fighters who had fired on one of their checkpoints during the night.

They kicked in doors and combed the open ground, quickly discovering the gunner's position. Concealed in the rubbish nearby they found an AK-47, four grenades and a cigarette carton filled with machine-gun rounds. On a nearby wall, someone had scrawled "Join the jihad."

The insurgents continue to operate in the town, residents say, planting roadside bombs like the one that breached the armor of a Stryker vehicle recently, slightly wounding some soldiers inside.

Two days after the Iraqi Army's sweep, the American Army commander, Colonel Davis, and his Iraqi counterpart, a Colonel Yasser who did not give his first name, faced a crowd of 300 people angered by the house-to-house searches and summary detentions.

"The Iraqi Army will be in every city," Colonel Yasser, a Sunni, told the crowd, urging them to vote in the constitutional referendum, scheduled for Oct. 15, and the national elections, scheduled for December.

He said the town must work with the government of Anbar Province to appoint new town officials and restore the police force. "If we don't unite," he said, "our voices will not be heard."

Colonel Davis delivered a blunter message. "We're not going anywhere," he told the murmuring crowd, adding that as long as there were attacks against Iraqi or American troops the house searches and roadblocks and bridge closings would continue.

"Some of you are concerned about the attack helicopters and mortar fire from the base," he said. "I will tell you this: those are the sounds of peace."


At 10/04/2005 08:46:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

US combat helicopters are the sounds of peace?? That's sure as hell news to the Vietnamese, the Nicaraguans, the Somalis and many others. They overfly my house looking for terrorists on Lake Ontario. I often wish they'd hit the drink.

And that US officer is drunk on Imperial whiskey.

At 10/04/2005 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

And how 'bout that for a brand new, US trained army--the first assignment is to harass and to kill your own people.


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