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U.S., Iraqis Crack Down on Porous Syrian Border

August 03, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military launched an operation Monday to stem the flow of arms, money and militants crossing into Iraq from Syria.

The operation is the first large-scale attempt by the military to crack down on illegal traffic from Syria.

Officials say stanching the flow of insurgents into Iraq will help weaken a guerrilla campaign they believe is still being directed by members of Saddam Hussein's former regime.

"Our first priority will be on the Syrian border, because we think that's where the former regime leadership and money went, in that direction, and it's coming back in from that direction," said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, who runs the operations of the 135,000 U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.

The operation, dubbed Phantom Linebacker, involves thousands of soldiers, Marines, military police, special operations forces and aviation units.

It is being carried out with the nascent Iraqi Border Police and Iraqi National Guard, which have largely been unable to detect and capture Iraqi insurgent leaders and foreign fighters, military officials say. The Iraqi units are susceptible to bribes by those eager to get into the country, the officials say.

Early today, the U.S. military reported that a Marine had died of wounds received in action in Al Anbar province, which adjoins Syria, while "conducting security and stability operations." No further details were given, and it was unclear whether the Marine was taking part in the border operation.

The U.S. military says it is conducting Operation Phantom Linebacker at the behest of the interim Iraqi government, which has blamed the insurgency on foreign fighters crossing into the country from Syria, Jordan and Iran. U.S. military officials say the insurgency is a predominantly home-grown effort confined to mostly Sunni Muslim areas of central Iraq.

U.S. commanders said they believed that insurgents in towns such as Ramadi, Fallouja and Samarra received direction and funding from former Baath Party leaders and their couriers who were able to cross the Syria-Iraq border.

"There are hundreds of them in Syria who are important and are facilitating the insurgency here," a senior U.S. military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials say they believe that former regime leaders occasionally cross the border between Iraq and Syria.

The senior official said there was no direct evidence that the highest levels of the Syrian government were arming and financing Iraqi insurgents.

"We have no smoking gun to say that the top officials of the [Syrian] government are helping them support violence here in Iraq," the official said.

Syrian officials have denied aiding anyone sending money or weapons into Iraq to help the insurgency.

U.S. officials said the operation was necessary even though Iraq and Syria had established a joint committee last month to monitor their border.

The U.S. levied sanctions against Damascus this year, accusing the government of not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal traffic into Iraq.

"The Syrian government has people in it promising [the insurgents] passports, documents and money," the official said. "It's incredibly corrupt."

In addition to military units deploying to the border, the U.S. is using spy satellites in the region. The military is also increasing the number of unmanned aerial vehicles patrolling the 375 miles of hilly borderland.

U.S. officials plan to focus on well-established crossing points where officials believe most of the illegal traffic is entering the country before proceeding down long stretches of desert highway into the cities of central Iraq -- what military officials call "rat lines."

"They're just coming right down the highways," Metz said. "We know the rat lines, we know the ones they're coming down, and we've got to start there."

U.S. commanders say they hope the Iraqi forces will have the most visible presence in the operation, with most of the U.S. troops establishing positions farther east of the border.

Because it will be harder to cross the border at the checkpoints, the insurgents and couriers will be forced to use more remote points in the desert, where American ground patrols will be able to spot them, U.S. officials say.

Despite the territorial boundaries, the strong alliances among the tribal populations of western Iraq and eastern Syria allow an easy flow of people, money and ammunition across the border.

"The tribal affiliations go across that border," said a second senior military official in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Despite the perceived threat from Syria, military commanders said they had neither the desire nor the troops to scour every inch of the Syrian border indefinitely.

"You're not going to take coalition forces and go arm in arm and go up and down the border to seal it off," Metz said. "You can't do it, it wouldn't be smart."

U.S. generals hope the new operation will be a deterrent.

A significant military "show of force" could dissuade senior Baathists and their emissaries from risking the overland journey into Iraq, they said.

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