- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq| With al Qaeda falling away, U.S. forces in Iraq are turning their attention to another front: the Iranian border. They aim to crack down on weapon smuggling from Iran by tightening the frontier with Iraq’s neighbor to the east, a U.S. commander said Friday.

The effort is aimed at smugglers who supply Shi’ite extremist groups with rockets, missiles, mortars and assembled explosive devices that have killed many U.S. troops.

”We’re going to start squeezing this network pretty hard,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who leads a contingent of 19,000 U.S. troops in regions south of the capital as commander of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

U.S. troops will establish small outposts in the vicinity of two or three official border crossings and seek to build relations with local tribes whose cooperation is critical, the general said. One such outpost already is set up.

For much of the war, U.S. and Iraqi forces were focused mainly on al Qaeda and other insurgent forces that threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war. Shi’ite extremist groups inside Iraq took advantage of that narrow focus to develop a network of weapons supply routes from Iran, he said.

“Now that al Qaeda is hurt very badly, we’re able to shift our emphasis and take a look at this other threat - and this is a significant threat that these Iranian-based extremist groups are attempting” to carry out, he said, not only by killing American troops but also seeking to topple the Iraqi government.

Maj. Gen. Oates called the weapons smuggling from Iran “the last remaining major threat” to be handled for Iraq.

He said he doesn’t expect to stop the smuggling from Iran, only to lessen the movement of weaponry. To date, however, neither the U.S. nor its coalition partners has succeeded in intercepting weapons crossing the border, he said.

Maj. Gen. Oates said much of the smuggled weaponry comes into Iraq through Maysan province, which borders Iran and has an official frontier crossing, called Sheeb, east of the city of Amarah.

He said Amarah, which was recently cleared of Shi’ite extremist forces by the Iraqi army, long was a hub for the shipment of smuggled weaponry from Iran. The arms would move from Amarah toward Baghdad either by heading west or by moving south to the Basra area and then north to the capital.

U.S. forces, which have not operated in Maysan province recently, intend to set up a patrol base not far from the border, Maj. Gen. Oates said.

The U.S. troops, along with American civilians who include retired FBI agents and customs-enforcement agents, will work with Iraq’s border-enforcement squads to tighten passport screening, cargo inspection and other border actions, he said.

The intent is to take a comprehensive approach at crossings up and down the border with Iran, the general said. He said it appears that most, if not all, of the weapons smugglers are Iraqis, although their networks begin in Iran.

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