U.S., Iraqi forces in major move to secure Syrian border

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

BAGHDAD The U.S. military, backed by Iraqi forces, has launched its first major operation along the border with Syria.

U.S. officials said Operation Phantom Linebacker has mobilized thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as armored combat vehicles, unmanned air vehicles and helicopters in an effort to stem the flow of insurgents, funds and weapons from Syria into Iraq.

The officials said the operation came in wake of a determination that the Sunni insurgency, including support for Abu Mussib Al Zarqawi, was coming mainly from Saddam Hussein loyalists who have fled to Syria.

The operation began on Aug. 2 and included the Iraqi Border Police and Iraqi National Guard, Middle East Newsline reported.

"Our first priority will be on the Syrian border," Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said, "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."

Officials said the operation was the largest by the United States to stop weapons from Syria. Earlier missions involved mainly fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in pursuit of Sunni insurgents along the more than 500 kilometer Iraqi-Syrian border.

The U.S. Army has not announced Operation Phantom Linebacker. But the military said two marines died in fighting in the Anbar province during "security and stability operations" along the Syrian border. No other details were provided.

Officials said Syrian officials have provided passports and official documents to Sunni insurgents in exchange for hefty bribes. They said the insurgents have also bribed Iraqi security forces deployed along the border.

Operation Phantom Linebacker, which has included the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, has also deployed UAVs as well as U.S. satellites to track the insurgency route. Officials said the first line of operations was being conducted by Iraqi security forces, with U.S. troops providing intelligence and support.

The U.S.-led operation came in wake of several warnings by Baghdad to both Iran and Syria to stem the flow of fighters, weapons and funding to the insurgency in Iraq. Senior Iraqi officials have been more critical of Iran than Syria, accusing the latter of seeking to undermine the new interim government in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, an Iraqi government delegation discussed border security cooperation with Iran. The delegation was said to have been in Teheran for a week and discussed border security and Iranian interference in Iraq.

Officials said the current operation along the Syrian border could press Iran to launch measures to stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq.

They said Saddam loyalists have established a network in Syria to train and fund insurgents to fight the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi government. The loyalists were said to have fueled the insurgency in such Sunni Triangle cities as Faluja, Ramadi and Samara.

In July, Iraq and Syria signed an agreement for border security. But even as the agreement was announced Iraqi officials expressed doubt whether the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad would honor the accord.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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