U.S. slowing flow of foreign fighters into Iraq

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    Quigley_Sharps The Badministrator Administrator Founding Member

    By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
    BAGHDAD — U.S.-led offensives in western Iraq have helped lead to a 50% drop in the number of foreign fighters slipping across the Syrian border, a U.S. general said.
    "Clearly, the effect we're most concerned about is foreigners coming and murdering other Iraqis and attacking coalition and Iraqi forces," said Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of multinational ground forces in Iraq. "Indicators are that a significantly reduced number of them are entering the country."

    Over the weekend, 3,500 troops, including 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, launched the latest offensive aimed at disrupting the supply line that brings foreign fighters from the Syrian border along a string of Euphrates River towns into central Iraq.

    On Sunday, coalition forces battled insurgents in Husaybah, a town near the border of Syria, on the second day of the offensive. Several dozen insurgents were killed as Marines pressed into the city. A Marine was killed when he entered a house rigged to explode. (Related story: U.S.-led forces attack al-Qaeda in Iraq)

    Priority for coalition forces

    Cutting off the supply of foreign fighters is a priority for coalition forces. Vines, commander of multinational ground forces in Iraq, declined to say how many foreigners are crossing the borders.

    Maj. Angela Hildebrant, a military spokeswoman, said the U.S. military estimates the number of foreign fighters by counting the number of foreigners killed in suicide attacks or captured by coalition forces in Iraq.

    Only 3.5% of the 13,885 detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq are foreigners, but they are often behind the deadliest suicide bombings and provide financing and organization to Iraq's insurgency.

    Rooting insurgents out of western Iraq and disrupting the supply line of foreign fighters has been difficult. Twenty-two Marines were killed last month in Anbar province, the region extending from west of Baghdad to the Syrian border.

    "We know we'll be successful with this operation," Marine Col. Stephen Davis said just before Operation Steel Curtain was launched. "The only question is the price we'll pay."

    Vines cautioned that the number of fighters crossing the border "ebbs and flows," and the latest good news may not signal a trend.

    Stabilizing problem areas

    A challenge for coalition forces is maintaining order once an offensive is over so rebels don't filter back. The desert area west of Baghdad and stretching to the Syrian border is vast, unruly and tribal.

    There aren't enough U.S. troops to leave behind after every offensive, but the number of capable Iraqi forces is growing, the U.S. military says. Iraq troops will be left behind after U.S. forces complete the latest offensive and return to their bases.

    A permanent presence "is required ... to ensure the enemy does not become active in that area again," said Lt. Col. Russell Smith, Iraqi security forces coordinator for the 2nd Marine Division.

    The Marines have also taken an unorthodox approach in training local forces in the western desert. They created a force of clans and tribesmen called the Desert Protection Force. The tribesmen are integrated into Iraqi army units and work as scouts and reconnaissance teams.

    "The Desert Protectors are tribesmen who know their areas like the back of their hand, and know where the foreign fighters and terrorists are and know who they are," Smith said.

    The border remains a volatile area. The Syrians remain generally uncooperative, and there have been clashes between U.S. forces and Syrian border guards who have on occasion entered Iraq, Vines said.

    The United States has accused Syria of not doing enough to stem the flow of foreigners across the border into Iraq.

    Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has said Syria harbored training camps for Iraqi insurgents. Damascus has denied the accusations.

    But Vines said other Muslim countries have cracked down on networks within their borders that are sending fighters to Iraq. The crackdowns have, together with military offensives near the border, reduced the number of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq.

    "Countries in the region recognize that there is nothing honorable in coming to Iraq and blowing up fellow Muslims or innocent men, women and children going to a mosque," Vines said. "There is action being taken."

    He did not name countries, but neighboring Saudi Arabia has clamped down on extremist clerics who encouraged followers to fight a holy war in Iraq, according to a recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    The Saudi government has also interrogated dozens of nationals either returning from Iraq or caught at the border in a massive crackdown on Saudi militants, the study said.

    Security agents in Jordan, which shares a border with Iraq, have intercepted suspected militants shuttling among Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

    Contributing: Gordon Trowbridge of Marine Corps Times in Husaybah
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