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    Middle East
     May 13, 2005
From Fallujah to Qaim
By Charles Recknagel and Kathleen Ridolfo

"This is the wild wild west. This is Qaim, at the western edge of Anbar province, bordering on Syria. It is a dusty, arid and lawless region, with large towns by the Euphrates River, which snakes into Iraq from Syria. Americans are attacked on a daily basis by a recalcitrant community..."
- Every time the wind blows, an Asia Times Online series by Nir Rosen, October 2003

About 1,000 US Marines supported by armor and attack helicopters began the major offensive in west-central Iraq on May 7. Since then, the sweep, dubbed Operation Matador, has seen some of the heaviest fighting since US forces took control of Fallujah in November.

US General James Conway told reporters in Washington that three Marines had been killed in western Iraq and fewer than 20 wounded. News reports say that some 110 insurgents have also been killed in the fighting.

Conway said that the operation was intended to rout insurgents from new strongholds they have established in western Anbar province since being pushed out of Fallujah in the east of the majority Sunni province some six months ago.

"Recently, I think, it is fair to say that commanders have evaluated that the center of resistance in Anbar [province] has moved further west since the fall of Fallujah and is now in the Ramadi-Hit corridor, extending westward, as opposed to Ramadi-Fallujah," Conway said.

Intense fighting has taken place in a string of towns toward the Syrian border at the western edge of the province. The area is part of the insurgents' smuggling route for weapons, supplies and foreign fighters believed to be arriving via Syria. The region is also thought to be a safe haven for al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

US forces have encountered well-organized resistance on both sides of the Euphrates River, which runs through the area. In one measure of the scale of the offensive, US forces completed construction of a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates on May 9 to bring heavy armored vehicles over to the south bank. Previously, there had been no easy way to deploy armored vehicles throughout the area.

Conway said that the insurgents were well trained and equipped and had put up fierce resistance. "There are reports that these people [insurgents] are in uniforms, in some cases are wearing protective vests, and there is some suspicion that their training exceeds that of what we have seen with other engagements further east," he said.

News reports say that fighting has taken place in the towns of Obeidi, Rommanah, Karabilah and Qaim as insurgents are reported to have fired at Marines from rooftop positions and bunkers.

Analysts say the level of fighting raises new questions about how much progress Washington and Baghdad are making in the now two-year-old effort to quell the insurgency.

US commanders had hoped that routing the insurgents from their earlier stronghold in Fallujah would knock the insurgency off balance. In that operation, some 1,500 insurgents were killed and another 1,500 captured. But the insurgents have since shown themselves to be highly flexible in moving their operations to other parts of central Iraq.

Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor of the London-based Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments, says it is still too early to know whether the insurgency is maintaining its strength or gradually waning. He says both sides can point to successes and setbacks. "Whilst clearly the situation isn't great for the Iraqi [government] and the US military in that country, it's not going all that well for the insurgents either," he said.

But Binnie says there are signs that new political initiatives in Baghdad could divide and weaken the insurgency in ways that military pressure alone has yet to do. "There are rumors that some of the Ba'athist factions [in the insurgency] are talking to the government and there might be some possibility of an amnesty, especially now that a Sunni tribal defense minister has been appointed," he said. "He might be able to bring some people in from the insurgency. And the insurgents, in some of their rhetoric and statements they publish on the Internet, seem to be concerned over the possibility of some of these factions going over."

Still, the fight both on the political and military front shows no signs of ending soon. Wednesday, insurgents struck a direct blow against the new government by kidnapping Anbar Governor Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi. The governor, who was appointed to his post just a few days ago, was abducted while traveling to view the US assault in the west of the province.

The region has seen sporadic fighting for months, but since late February, insurgents appear to have undertaken a campaign to forcefully engage US forces. Iraqi media in February reported repeated attacks by insurgents aimed at ambushing, then engaging US Marines in and around Qaim. The US military reportedly dropped leaflets over the town asking citizens not to cooperate with the insurgents and to report insurgent hideouts.

The escalation, and a buildup of US forces outside the town, prompted local notables and clerics to form a city council to run the city's affairs in case of an incursion, al-Jazeera reported on March 2. Tanzim Qa'idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group led by Zarqawi, posted at least two statements on jihadi websites on March 3 and 7 claiming successes against US forces in the towns and villages around the border. The bodies of some 30 Iraqis were discovered in Qaim on March 9, and while all of the dead were dressed in civilian clothes, some Iraqi officials claimed the dead were Iraqi soldiers who disappeared some 10 days earlier.

Insurgent attacks on US Marines continued throughout March, but US Marines appeared to be cutting off insurgent lines, as alluded to in a series of mid-March statements by Zarqawi followers to jihadi websites. A March 15 statement by Zarqawi's group posted on the ekhlaas.com jihadi website sent a message to the "besieged mujahideen" in Anbar province. The message attempted to reinvigorate the besieged insurgents by drawing on Koranic stories and verses about noble fighters, saying, "When the infidel parties besiege you all around, fight you with tanks, planes, and all they have, you, lions of Islam, have only God, in whom you put your trust and upon whom you completely rely."

Iraq's Sunni resistance leaders also touted the strength of the resistance in Qaim. Muhammad Ayyash al-Kubaysi, the representative of the Muslim Scholars Association abroad, claimed in an April 8 interview with al-Jazeera television that the fighters in Qaim had managed to prevent US forces from entering the town. Al-Kubaysi, much like supporters of insurgent fighters in Fallujah, appeared to believe that the insurgents possessed some God-given supernatural powers that would enable them to drive US forces from Iraq. Jihadis in an April 18 Internet statement dedicated that day's attack on a US base to al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and reminded supporters to "not forget to mention us in your prayers".

By early May, the US military was closing off Qaim, Haqlaniyah and Hadithah, towns farther east along the road to Ramadi, Meanwhile, the insurgency issued sharp denials to US claims of success in the fighting.

Town lawless since invasion
Insurgents established a stronghold in Qaim in the early days following the US-led invasion of Iraq. International media reported the infiltration of foreign fighters across the Iraq-Syria border in the spring and summer 2003, and the US military acknowledged the existence of "rat lines" for insurgent fighters in Husaybah, just north of Qaim, in December 2003 when they launched a series of house-to-house sweeps in the town in an effort to crush the insurgency.

"The insurgents have a series of small cells, and the small cells know what their own are doing," The Washington Times quoted Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buche as saying in a December 3, 2003, report. "If we can get to the guys in the center, then the whole network could fall apart." That goal was apparently not realized at the time.

A February 2004 report published in the Iraqi daily al-Mu'tamar described the resistance that began in Qaim after the war as a mix of local resistance and foreign mujahideen fighters who saw themselves as part of the jihad to establish an Islamic state in Iraq. Much like the state of other cities in Iraq in the weeks and months after the war, Qaim was overrun with criminal gangs and a general absence of law ensued. Police in the town said that they had difficulty recruiting new members to the police force. Resentment against the US military also built among at least some members of the community, where tribal law reportedly supersedes everything else. The subsequent detention of hundreds of local residents by US forces only fueled the insurgency.

The US military has long noted the difficulty in securing the 725 kilometer Syrian-Iraqi border. Despite the placement of sand berms on either side of the border and Syria's supposed commitment to preventing the illegal crossing of insurgents, the insurgents continue to penetrate the border area, providing a plethora of fighters to replace those detained or killed. Until the border is truly secure, the insurgency will continue. As a group of men on the Syrian side of the border contended to the US TV news program Frontline for an article published on April 26, it is the duty of Muslims to wage jihad against invaders.

Copyright (c) 2005, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036



A rough week for Iraq (May 11, '05)

Long shadows of the Shi'ite tragedy
(May 5, '05)

Iraq's hostage cabinet (Apr 30, '05)

Pentagon between Iraq and a hard place (Apr 29, '05)

 
 

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