New Iraq base set up to block infiltration route from Syria

LA Times:

American troops have established the first long-term military base along a major smuggling route near the Syrian border in a new effort to block potential suicide bombers from reaching targets in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities.

A force of 1,800 U.S. troops, responding to continuing concerns that foreign fighters are crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, recently began an operation that includes setting up the base, three miles from the crossroads town of Rawah.

By establishing for the first time a base north of the Euphrates River along the strategic route that connects the Syrian border to roads leading north toward Mosul and southeast to Baghdad, military strategists hope to prevent foreign fighters, who they say are aligned with Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, from reaching their targets.


The American forces began arriving July 16 in the region, where they occasionally have carried out incursions in the last two years to fight insurgents. The region has long been viewed as a key staging area for insurgent activities, but U.S. intelligence suggests that the problem has increased in recent months as foreign fighters have used it to smuggle an increasingly lethal variety of explosives, including car bombs.


...The base as been set up far enough from the town so that insurgents seeking to launch mortar and rocket attacks would have to do so from the open desert, where they are more likely to be seen.


Foreign fighters are believed to have been crossing into the country from Syria since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After a recent crackdown along the rocky northern border near Mosul, they have been forced to enter farther south, U.S. officials said. Rawah is of strategic importance for insurgents seeking to reach Baghdad from that portion of Syria because it is just north of a bridge on the Euphrates River that links the area to the road to Baghdad.

Smugglers who for years trafficked in cigarettes, gasoline and sheep are now being paid to bring in foreign fighters, explosives and weapons, senior military officials said. Commanders are especially eager to seize members of Zarqawi's group who are believed to have escaped there from Fallouja in November.


Troops from the Stryker Brigade recently chased a suspected car bomber across the river at Rawah and forced him out of the car, a senior military officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A second car arrived and apparently detonated the first vehicle, killing the bomber before driving off.

A U.S. military official said the incident revealed the extent to which "handlers" monitored would-be suicide bombers to prevent them from backing out. In the first four days of the military operation, U.S. troops encountered two car bombers and several mortar and rocket attacks, officials said.
There is much more.


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