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US Launches New Anti-Insurgent Operation Near Syrian Border - 2003-11-28


U.S. forces have launched a fresh campaign to root out anti-coalition insurgents in Iraq by encircling three important towns on the country's border with Syria, and searching from house to house. The forces have already rounded up hundreds of suspects. Some U.S. soldiers are giving money to households that comply with a rule that allows them to have just one weapon.

It is midday near Iraq's border with Syria, and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Buche has just handed a $20 bill to a man whose house has passed inspection. The colonel's troops have just finished their search for weapons and insurgents in the house.

The homeowner wants to know why he was not paid for a similar search two days earlier.

"Just let them know that the $20 is a gift," he said. "I'm not required to give $20 to anybody. So that is a gift, it is not a salary."

Even with the financial incentive, the army acknowledges that the reaction of most residents in Husaybah and other towns along the border with Syria has been mixed. One reason for local opposition is that the house-to-house searches began a week ago, during the holy month of Ramadan, and continued through the end-of-Ramadan festival.

In addition, residents claim that most of those arrested, handcuffed, and marched through the town to a detention center in the desert have nothing to do with the insurgency.

This resident, Hala Khalaf, complains to the soldiers that they are taking men and leaving only women and children in some households. She claims these men are not fighting U.S. forces.

The U.S.-appointed mayor of Husaybah, Raja Nawaf, says that the house searches and the added military force used in his town are raising new tensions and, in some cases he says, fueling the insurgency.

"I think the American Army has increased their force here," he said. "Of course, there is action and there is reaction. This is my opinion and many people are arrested. Many families have lost a son. Some people have been killed by a mistake."

Senior U.S. commanders defend their tactics as a means of closing down Iraq's border with Syria to foreign fighters - including members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. They say the outsiders try to use border towns as the first stop on their way into Iraq's violent Sunni Triangle region, near Baghdad.

But even here in the north, the situation is tense and dangerous. The local police chief, who was working with the coalition troops, was assassinated in October, marking the beginning of a sharp increase in attacks on coalition forces and Iraqis who help them.

Major General Charles Swannack Jr., commanding general of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, explained the troops' mission as he stepped off his Black Hawk helicopter to review the operations in Husaybah.

"This part of the operation on foreign fighters that might come across the border, you know, this is a component of what we have to do here," said General Swannack. "[We need to fight] not only the former regime loyalists, but also tackle the foreign fighters. And this operation focused specifically on trying to get the foreign fighters coming across the border, or on the rat lines - as we call them - heading down to Baghdad. "

General Swannack listens to a briefing from his field commanders, who tell him their forces have rounded up about 10 suspicious foreigners along the border in the last four days.

He gets more good news from Major Collin Fortier, about improving relations between local residents and U.S. servicemen.

"The 20 dollars, it sounds really hokey, but I think it is starting to sway the people, and the presence of the soldiers and the way the soldiers are conducting it," said Major Fortier. "In fact, down here, the soldiers got invited in for tea and crumpets. That is a good thing, because we will get some intel [intelligence] out of those guys."

Ground commanders stress the importance of their operation, but say they also try to listen to the residents of Husaybah. Lieutenant Colonel Buche says he is trying to be sensitive to local needs, while also following his orders. He says local residents complained about the curfew the army imposed, saying they needed to be out of their homes after curfew in order to pray in the mosque. He promised to ask his commanders to ease the curfew, if possible.

"And I understand that," said Lieutenant Colonel Bushe. "Prayer is very important in my religion, too. If there is no violence against my soldiers, I will ask my superior, my commander, to change the curfew, so that we can go to prayer."

After a day in the field listening to a long list of complaints from residents, Lieutenant Colonel Buche gives his weary battalion commanders a pep talk.

"If we have the right mix of compassion and aggression, the enemy here can't win," he said. "And my hat's off to you, because you are doing a great, great job."

It's not an easy job, but the soldiers and officers say they're doing their best to fight the insurgency while not making life too difficult for the local people.

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