San Francisco Chronicle:
A senior U.S. Marine commander said Monday that insurgents loyal to militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had taken over at least five key western Iraqi towns on the border with Syria and were forcing local residents to flee.The bombs raining on "safe houses" might be a clue. Al Qaeda cannot trust people not to turn them in.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Lt. Col. Julian Alford, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment stationed outside the western Iraqi town of al Qaim, said insurgents in the area had been distributing flyers they called "death letters," in which they ordered residents of this western corner of volatile Anbar province to leave -- or face death.
"Basically, the insurgents say if they don't leave they will ... behead them," said Alford, who took command this month of about 1,000 Marines stationed in the dusty desert area populated by roughly 100,000 Sunni Arabs.
"It appears that al Qaeda in Iraq is kicking out local people from a lot of these towns out there," he said. Alford said he did not know why the insurgents were forcing townspeople to leave, but he estimated that as many as 100 families per day were passing through a Marine checkpoint just east of the troubled area, their cars packed with their belongings as they flee east alongside the Euphrates River on the ancient Silk Road.
...It is becoming clear that al Qaeda cannot swim in a sea of civilians anymore. By chasing the civilians out of these communities, they also make the job easier for US forces when they do a Tal Afar type operation. Al Qaed can't live with the locals because of fear of getting blown up by smart bombs and when they do not have the civilians there to hide behind they will be easier to destroy.
Two weeks ago, Marine spokesmen denied initial reports that insurgents had taken control of the area and were enforcing strict Islamic law, whipping men accused of drinking alcohol, burning a beauty parlor and shops that sold CDs and executing government workers for collaboration with the Iraqi government.
But Alford told The Chronicle that fighters linked to al-Zarqawi had been in complete control of these ancient smuggling communities for at least the past month, and that neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces held any sway over the swath of land that abuts Iraq's desolate, porous 450-mile border with Syria. Washington has repeatedly accused Syria of providing a safe transit route for foreign fighters headed for Iraq.
He estimated that between 300 and 400 insurgents were operating in the area. Most of them, he said, are foreign fighters who have crossed into Iraq through the border with Syria.
Alford believes that intensive attacks by U.S. forces on their strongholds in Ramadi and Fallujah, two Euphrates River cities, respectively, 120 and 140 miles downstream from al Qaim, has pushed fighters west toward the border with Syria. In the border area surrounding al Qaim, he said, "they found their last foothold."
Alford said he was expecting to launch a joint offensive against the insurgents holed up in al Qaim and the surrounding towns after the arrival of about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in the area. He did not say when the Iraqi troops were scheduled to arrive, saying only that it would be "soon."
"They're dangerous, and they're extremely adaptive, but they can't beat us and the Iraqi army," he said.