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Commander sees major progress in Anbar

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- U.S. and Iraqi security forces have erected berms around a city in Iraq's Anbar province, forcing traffic through just three points to help catch insurgents, an American officer said Friday.

The city, Rutbah, sits on the intersection of two main roads connecting both Syria and Jordan to Baghdad. As such, it has been a primary stop for insurgents and weapons on their way to the capital and other points in Iraq, said Col. Stephen, commander of Regimental Combat Team-2.

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"This town had the unfortunate occurrence of being strategically placed there -- very convenient for smugglers, terrorists, insurgents to operate in and out of there," he said.

The building of berms is a rare though not unheard of technique employed in towns with particularly intransigent insurgent elements. Berms -- large piles of dirt and sand bulldozed around the town to control entry and egress -- were also used to secure Tall 'Afar last fall prior to a major offensive there.

"We have now an exclusive walled compound down there, with three entry control checkpoints, that's been getting rave reviews from the population down there because, for the first time in years now, the insurgents can't freely travel in and out of that city -- one more step in making western Al Anbar a prohibitive environment for the insurgents and terrorists to operate in," Davis said.

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Smugglers and organized crime -- inextricably linked to the tribal system in western Iraq -- are a significant part of the security problem in Iraq, and are believed to be responsible for some of the roadside bombs used against American and Iraqi forces, U.S. military officials say. If law and order is established, it will cut into their ability to operate. What looks like a grass roots insurgency in some places is simply organized crime trying to protect its turf, according to intelligence officers.

Iraqi and American troops now have a presence in 15 cities in al Anbar province in Western Iraq, according to Davis. Several more town would benefit from a troops presence, but he doesn't yet have sufficient Iraqi forces to fill those holes.

"Off the top of my head, I'd say I can think of three towns right now, maybe four that I'd be able to deploy troops to when they're ready coming out of training. But your major population centers all through the al Qaim region, all through the triad, up in Rawah and down in Hit all have combined partnered presence living in there, and most of them had been in there for three months or longer at this point," he said.

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Davis described a dramatic change from a year ago when his forces relieved Regimental Combat Team 7. At the time, Iraq's fledgling security forces had entirely collapsed in Anbar and a joint U.S and Iraqi offensive in Fallujah had only just wrested control of that town from insurgent forces.

"When I came out here, we had absolutely no Iraqis working with us. The first Iraqis that we got to partner with were the 7th Division Reconnaissance Company; I think 32-men strong," he said.

"I command two Iraqi brigades of three battalions each. We have five battalions of the Department of Border Enforcement folks ... I prefer to stay away from actual overall numbers for operational security purposes. But we have got considerably more than we ever had before, and they are partnered with all of my infantry and mechanized units throughout the Euphrates River Valley and live with the Marines and soldiers in these towns," he said.

Vast Anbar province, stretching from the Syrian, Jordanian and part of the Saudi borders up to Fallujah, is 95 percent Sunni Arab, and generally acquiescent to or supportive of the insurgency. The Iraqi government forces under Davis' command are roughly 40 percent Shi'ite, 40 percent Kurd and 20 percent Sunni Arab, Davis said. One of the Iraqi brigades is lead primarily by Sunnis from Anbar province.

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"Performance-wise they're a solid brigade. They've still got learning curve to go, but they are operating. They're operating independently in small-unit actions, and they are operating with us. They have taken casualties, and they continue to remain steadfast," he said.

Davis' Marines keep an eye out for potential ethnic tensions with the other brigades, he said.

"It is clearly something that we keep a sharp eye on when they deal with the people in the towns that are 99 percent Sunni, but that has not created any overt friction that's become problematic to this point," he said.

Within ethnically mixed brigades, he does not see ethnic strife.

"I think that the mentoring and the association with the Marines and the Army soldiers that I have working within regimental combat team two provides an outstanding example of how to set those differences aside," he said.

Davis' forces will return to the United States after a year in Anbar this spring, and he believes they have made major strides.

"A mark of the progress that's occurred up there is I was able to walk the Syrian border from the Euphrates down to Camp Gannon the other day and then drive from there all through Ubaydi and across the river into the Ramana area, something that was absolutely unheard of a year ago," he said.

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Voter turnout also dramatically increased. In January 2005, there were virtually no votes cast in western Al Anbar province. On October 15th, 7,500 votes were cast in the constitutional referendum. During the national election on Dec. 15, more than 72,000 votes were cast. The province has about 1.2 million people.

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