View Full Version : Frustrated Marines chase army of ghosts

06-29-05, 07:42 PM
Frustrated marines chase army of ghosts
(Filed: 30/06/2005)

US patrols on the Iraqi-Syrian border play cat and mouse with insurgents, reports Oliver Poole in Qaim

The United States marines call it "chasing ghosts". They move into an area known as a haven for jihadists, young men flocking to Iraq to wage holy war, only to find the enemy already gone.

Their Kalashnikovs are left behind, their bomb-making equipment scattered on the floor and food is abandoned, still warm, on the table. But the Americans' targets have vanished to mingle anonymously with Iraqis outside.

The marines have swept through the area hugging the Syrian border in strength twice in the past few months. Both times the operations followed a similar pattern: the US military moved in and then, after an initial burst of defiance, the enemy melted away.

The American troops returned to their base. And their foes then returned to resume where they left off.

President George W Bush, their commander-in-chief, underlined the deadly threat the jihadists posed to America in a speech in North Carolina on Tuesday. America's strategy is "to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home," he said.

The problem, however, is finding them.

"Before we came here, people would tell me these people do not care if they live or die just as long as they can kill an American," said Cpl Eric Rainey, 22, a squad leader of a unit ordered to scour the border region for "bad guys".

"Well I'm not so sure about that now. They don't seem to want to be shot at. They're not so dumb."

In fact, they are smart enough to use shepherds as scouts to warn of the approach of US troops, who move en masse due to the danger from ambush or mines the area poses.

"They abandon their weapons in place, leave their identification papers, anything that we as military personnel are trained to safeguard they leave. Then they turn into civilians," said Lt Nathan Smith. "It's frustrating."

The operational hub for the Americans' hunt is Qaim, the largest city where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq from Syria.

It is along the river, the same route that has been used by smugglers for centuries, that the majority of foreign fighters now enter the country.

Helicopters supplying the marine base in the city trace their route by following toppled electricity pylons, the only feature visible in miles of desert dunes.

There are no border guards or police. They were annihilated - killed or forced to flee - last November when the foreign fighters gained control of the region. The only landmarks defining the frontier on the Syrian side are a few Syrian soldiers, ready to look the other way for a few dollars, and two 5ft tall sand berms, partly flattened by the volume of traffic breaching the barrier.

The American high command knows how its enemy crosses the border. The same smugglers who used to bring across sheep, cigarettes and petrol will now take human contraband instead. It even has a good idea of who many of them are. Passports - Saudi, Syrian, Tunisian - have been uncovered along with some of the safe houses, one of them in a girls' school whose blackboard boasted instructions how to make a roadside bomb.

But the US military is yet to have any large-scale success in combating them. The insurgents, both Iraqi and foreign, have learnt the lesson of Fallujah where they stood and fought back, leaving 1,200 dead. The Americans freely admit that part of the problem is one of manpower.

To prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syria could mean posting troops based around armoured vehicles every few hundred yards along the entire Syrian-Iraqi border, a distance of about 280 miles.

This alone would occupy more than 20,000 of their soldiers.

Yet, despite the lack of large-scale captures and the near daily suicide bombings in Baghdad and other cities, the US forces in the area remain optimistic that they will still win this fight.

"We do not have the manpower to keep constant watch over the border," said Capt Thomas Sibley, the intelligence officer of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, based at Qaim. "But we believe that we are nevertheless making progress.

"If you let a block of sand run through your fingers, you will lose a lot but some will be caught in your palm.

"We estimate that around 150 are crossing the border each month so if we kill 40 to 50 fighters that's a significant number of those passing through."

He continued: "We are seizing large amounts of weapons and disrupting their organisational network. That takes time to rebuild.

"It's a slow progress but we have to take them out a slice at a time until we have beaten them."

Until then the operations continue. On Tuesday the latest was launched around Hit, an insurgent-held city 80 miles east believed to be used as a staging post for jihadists heading to the capital.

About 1,000 troops moved in shortly after midnight. Intelligence had left no doubt it housed hundreds of enemy fighters and been a supply point for much of the surrounding region - but it was taken without barely having to fire a shot.

The ghosts had disappeared once again.