The Battle for the Border
Most of those fighters are believed to enter the country north of the where the Euphrates river crosses into Iraq. Because the American military presence has until recently been on the south side of the river, the north side has become something of a sanctuary for insurgents moving foreign fighters south along the river to Baghdad and north across desert tracks to Mosul. There are only a few bridges across the Euphrates between the Syrian border and Haditha ... even fewer of the bridges are substantial enough to allow coalition forces to safely move armored vehicles from one side of the Euphrates to the other.
The United States military began addressing the flow of foreign fighters in May with a major operation along the Syrian border north of the Euphrates. The number of insurgents encountered in those operations ... convinced Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, that it was time to focus on the north bank in order to stem the flow downriver. ...
"Now we own the Rawah bridge and they can't move across the river," a senior intelligence officer in Baghdad said Wednesday, adding that "the operations are making it harder and harder for them to move around."
Meanwhile, the Marines based at Haditha have begun a major hunt for insurgents south of the river. Operations and intelligence officers say they don't believe there are more than a few dozen insurgents operating in the area but that the new military presence north of the river has triggered a rabid response. "We struck a nerve," the intelligence officer said. "All along the river we're seeing an upsurge of activity."
American troops have established the first long-term military base along a major smuggling route near the Syrian border in a new effort to block potential suicide bombers from reaching targets in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. A force of 1,800 U.S. troops, responding to continuing concerns that foreign fighters are crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, recently began an operation that includes setting up the base, three miles from the crossroads town of Rawah. ...
The American forces began arriving July 16 in the region, where they occasionally have carried out incursions in the last two years to fight insurgents. ... As the operation unfolds, Marines would continue to hold the region south of the Euphrates, while the Stryker Brigade, which has been based in Mosul, pushes south, putting insurgents in a "vice," a senior U.S. military strategist said. The unfamiliar whoosh of helicopter rotors and the sight of the Army brigade's Stryker vehicles engaged in battles along largely rural roadways have prompted hundreds and possibly thousands of the estimated 20,000 people in Rawah to flee in fear of an attack similar to the one in Fallouja, officials said.
Rawah is located at 34 28 N 41 55 E, almost exactly halfway between the Syrian border and Haditha. A main road runs on the south bank of the Euphrates but a bridge at Rawah gives onto a crossroads on the opposite side, from where a number of roads radiating like spokes on a wheel provide access to the Syrian desert crossings, Mosul, Tharthar Lake and other points on the north bank of the river. Bill Roggio has a map and more information on the Rawah operation at his site together with a compendium of all the operations that have taken place along the Euprates River line. Visit each of Roggio's links in his enumeration of the river operations and it will be abundantly clear how every one is aimed at pruning the routes along the Euphrates and horizontally across Iraq towards the Tigris.
Making it harder for the enemy to move around while making it easier for US units has the effect of lowering apparent enemy numbers while correspondingly increasing apparent American troop strength; but this is only a means to an end. Another LA Times report on the Rawah operation, Rebels on the Run, Locals Too describes some of its effects as observed by the correspondent.
Since arriving in mid-July, the 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Squadron of the 14th Cavalry Regiment has defeated the fighters here and will now spread out to seal the border with Syria, said Lt. Col. Mark Davis, the unit's commander. ... Having wrested control of Rawah, the division's Stryker Brigade Combat Team now hopes to press westward toward the border and, for the first time, gain control of a broad swath of the land north of the Euphrates that has eluded the U.S.-led coalition for more than two years. On Thursday and Friday, soldiers searched every one of the town's estimated 3,000 to 5,000 homes, capturing some suspected insurgents and a bounty of weapons, including mines, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, bomb-making equipment, sniper rifles and rockets.
"Since then, there has been no enemy attack, no explosions, nobody shooting at us in Rawah," Davis said. The town might be quiet now, but it's not necessarily friendly. On an outer school wall, spray painted in Arabic, is a note of defiance: "Praise the people of Fallouja" — a former insurgent stronghold where U.S. and Iraqi forces prevailed in November. Davis acknowledged that most Iraqis had left town but said they didn't leave under instructions from U.S. troops. The insurgents apparently had held the town hostage, American officials said. There were no police, a dormant city council, a compound of schools with no children and no teachers inside.
(Speculation alert) There are probably many similar operations that are taking place along the river and to its north, as per the Di Rita briefing. One of them may have been undertaken by the US Marines at Haditha, during which 21 Marines were killed. One possible reason why this operation has been kept low key, despite its size, is that it may be literally ripping up the insurgent base of support along the upper Euphrates. If the LA Times article is accurate, the insurgents essentially took the whole population of Rawah with them; if the phenomenon is being repeated elsewhere, the displacement of the Sunni population must be huge. To the north there is the unsustaining desert; to the south across the river there is the sweep of the Marines; for the insurgents to leave the population in place would risk leaving intelligence in the hands of the Americans. This has got to hurt and it is only the beginning. The LA Times notes the abandonment of RPGs, sniper rifles, mortars -- stuff you wouldn't leave behind -- not willingly. The whole point of strangling the enemy lines of communication while building support bases is to set up the stage for pursuit. And they will be pursued. The focus of newspaper coverage in the coming days may abruptly shift from 'poor helpless Marines from Ohio' to 'we're slaughtering them! We're killers!' These are the hard choices of war, and as Hemingway once wrote "all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you."