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Iraq: Months Of Insurgent Activity Preceded Operation In Western Iraq

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

U.S. Marines launched Operation Matador on 8 May along Iraq's western border with Syria in what U.S. Lieutenant General James Conway called an effort "to eliminate insurgents and foreign fighters in this region that's known for its smuggling" and as a safe haven for insurgents.

U.S. officials have said that new intelligence and tips from members of the community led to the launch of the operation in the Al-Anbar Governorate, which has been plagued by violence for much of the two years since the liberation of Iraq. Conway told reporters on 10 May that the current operation has been buoyed by tips from local residents through the anonymous hotline recently taken over by Iraqi security forces in Baghdad.

Thus, the operation launched this week, much like the U.S. incursions into Al-Fallujah last fall, is a response to the continuing infiltration of insurgents across the Syrian border, and growing violence and attacks on multinational forces and, more often, on Iraqi civilians and government officials.

Direct Attacks On U.S. Troops

The region has seen sporadic fighting for months, but since late February, insurgents appear to have undertaken a campaign to forcefully engage U.S. forces. Iraqi media in February reported repeated attacks by insurgents aimed at ambushing, then engaging U.S. Marines in and around Al-Qa'im. The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 2 March. Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group led by fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, posted at least two statements on jihadist websites on 3 and 7 March claiming successes against U.S. forces in the towns and villages around the border. The bodies of some 30 Iraqis were discovered in Al-Qa'im on 9 March, 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 U.S. Marines continued throughout March, but U.S. Marines appeared to be cutting off insurgent lines, as alluded to in a series of mid-March statements by al-Zarqawi followers to jihadist websites. A 15 March statement by al-Zarqawi's group posted on the ekhlaas.com jihadist website sent a message to the "besieged mujahedin" in the Al-Anbar Governorate. 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 Al-Qa'im. Muhammad Ayyash al-Kubaysi, the representative of the Muslim Scholars Association abroad, claimed in an 8 April interview with Al-Jazeera television that the fighters in Al-Qa'im had managed to prevent U.S. forces from entering the town. Al-Kubaysi, much like supporters of insurgent fighters in Al-Fallujah, appeared to believe that the insurgents possessed some God-given supernatural powers that would enable them to drive U.S. forces from Iraq. Jihadists in an 18 April Internet statement dedicated that day's attack on a U.S. 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 U.S. military was closing off Al-Qa'im, Al-Haqlaniyah, and Al-Hadithah, towns farther east along the road to Al-Ramadi, Meanwhile, the insurgency issued sharp denials to U.S. claims of success in the fighting.

Town Lawless Since Invasion

Insurgents established a stronghold in Al-Qa'im in the early days following the U.S.-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 U.S. military acknowledged the existence of "rat lines" for insurgent fighters in Husaybah, just north of Al-Qa'im, 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 3 December 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 Al-Qa'im after the war as a mix of local resistance and foreign mujahedin 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, Al-Qa'im 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 U.S. 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 U.S. forces only fueled the insurgency.

The U.S. military has long noted the difficulty in securing the 725-kilometer-long 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 U.S. TV news program "Frontline" (http://www.pbs.org) for an article published on 26 April, it is the duty of Muslims to wage jihad against invaders.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 11 May contacted a number of officials in the Interior and Defense ministries as well as the office of interim National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i for comment on Operation Matador. All declined comment. It remains unclear why Iraqi security forces are not taking part in the operation, but one might speculate that transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is reluctant to give the insurgents an opportunity to frame the operation in terms of a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Al-Ja'fari has said, however, that one of the major goals of his administration is to bring security to Iraq.

See also: Iraq: U.S. Forces Attacking Insurgents In West Face Well-Trained Foe

For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".
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