INFILTRATIONS

Grendel

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April 20, 2004
INFILTRATIONS
U.S. Commanders Say Increased Border Patrols Are Halting the Influx of Non-Iraqi Guerrillas
By ERIC SCHMITT
New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 19 — American and allied forces have choked the flow of foreign fighters coming into Iraq from Syria and Iran, curbing a small but persistent source of combatants that has fueled the insurgency, especially in the Sunni Muslim heartland, American military officers said Monday.

Along the desolate 350-mile frontier with Syria, the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which relieved the 82nd Airborne Division last month, has positioned units more than a third larger there and has stepped up 24-hour patrols.

Air Force U-2 spy planes and remotely piloted Predator reconnaissance aircraft soar over vast swaths of the western desert that smugglers have plied for centuries. Ground sensors are also being used along well-traveled routes, officials say.

To deter arms smugglers and foreign militants, the 101st Airborne Division built a 15-foot-high earthen barrier earlier this year along 200 miles of the border with Syria.

On the mountainous 500-mile boundary with Iran, Kurdish militia members patrol the north while North Carolina Army National Guard soldiers have joined some of the 17,000 new Iraqi border police officers to monitor important crossings to the south.

The number of foreign fighters and their significance in the insurgency has been a contentious issue, even among American officials, with some seeing the problem as much larger than others.

American commanders say, though, that some weapons and fighters are still slipping through the notoriously porous borders. Insurgents masquerading as Shiite Muslim pilgrims may have crossed from Iran.

The deaths of five marines in a 14-hour firefight on Saturday in Qusaiba, a remote town near the Syrian border, underscores the fierce resistance facing American troops in areas far from the fighting in Falluja, the Sunni town west of Baghdad.

The issue of border infiltrators has gained greater attention in recent days as some American officials fear that more foreign insurgents — from zealous untrained youths to veterans of the war in Chechnya — may be drawn to Falluja, a city that has become the icon of the resistance.

One senior officer said those fighters, though relatively small in numbers, might be providing "backbone" to that resistance.

But in interviews, several American officers said the virtually unguarded Iraqi borders that the United States-led occupation force inherited a year ago after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government have been significantly tightened, especially in the last month.

"We have mitigated a problem that we first recognized as soon as we kind of owned the country, and realized real fast that there were specific border areas that were wide open," said one senior military officer who watches border operations closely.

Last week the director of operations for the American military's Central Command, Maj. Gen. John Sattler of the Marine Corps, said the biggest difference was on the Syrian border, where the increased marine presence has clamped down on foreign fighters and the "rat lines," or smugglers' routes, that insurgents have used to ferry men and matériel south from the border area to Falluja and Baghdad.

"When the marines came into the west they brought a larger force in than the one that they replaced," General Sattler said, declining to specify the increase on the border except to say it was more than one-third larger than the numbers of forces the Army's 82nd Airborne Division put there.

"Because they did have more forces and because the way that we continue to use our reconnaissance asset and our combined arms," he said, "they have been able to make that border region tighter."

About 1,000 marines are now based at Qaim, a restive border town near Qusaiba, and General Sattler said last week that the force had succeeded in destroying groups of insurgents in that area who were helping infiltrators. "We did find, fix and ultimately finish a number of cells that were out there, that were facilitating this type of movement," he said.

The extent of the problem has been a matter of debate. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., the commander of 82nd Airborne, which last month handed over responsibility for patrolling much of Iraq's borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the marines, said last November that in seven months his forces had encountered only about 20 foreign fighters trying to sneak into the country to attack American and allied forces.

He said former Hussein loyalists and other Iraqis, not foreigners, had been responsible for attacks against his soldiers.

About the same time, though, in Washington officials estimated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq at 1,000 to 3,000, and the White House suggested that the foreigners were continuing to enter the country and mastermind many of the attacks, linking the war in Iraq to the global campaign against terrorism.

Fewer than 300 fighters from Syria, Sudan and other countries are in allied custody, and American military officials said they have no reliable estimates of foreign fighters in Iraq now.

But as Saudi, Jordanian and to some extent even Iranian authorities have tightened their borders, American officials say Syria still lags in cracking down.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell issued a stern warning to Syria through the United States Embassy there, telling Syria that "it needs to control the transit of its border by terrorists and people supporting the insurgents in Iraq," said the secretary's spokesman, Richard A. Boucher.

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has said there is little he can do, citing strong tribal connections between the countries and the vast desert areas on either side of the border. "Is the border totally shut down?" said General Sattler. "I won't make that statement."