- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

TIGER BASE, Iraq-Syria border — Fighters in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment refer to it simply as “the Cage.” It is a barbed-wire detention center for suspected foreign infiltrators consisting of a circular pen lined with rigid metal containers.

Inside, the prisoners — some of them “high-value targets” with foreign identity cards — quietly await their interrogations. Several genuflect to God, while others simply run their fingers through the brown sand that stretches for miles in all directions.

U.S. soldiers jokingly call the enclosure, designed to hold up to 2,000 prisoners, the “Super Bowl of Jihads.” But it is seldom clear who sent the detainees across the border from Syria, and even their captors say most are probably not members of any organized movement.

“What we are trying to get … are the foreign fighters that might come across,” said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., during a recent visit to the camp.

“We believe that there are not only former regime loyalists but also foreign fighters, and this operation is focused specifically on trying to discern the rat lines — as we call them — that head down to Baghdad.

“Some of the battle damage assessments show that we are finding some of these foreign fighters in pretty good numbers. We are also learning how the enemy is [infiltrating Iraq].”

Pentagon officials have pinpointed the Syrian border as a key crossing point for al Qaeda and other jihadist groups who hope to confront U.S. forces in Iraq. For now, U.S. ground commanders view other crossing points on the Saudi and Iranian borders as less crucial to the antiterror campaign.

But the terror organizations deliberately have chosen not to send large numbers of foreign fighters into Iraq, said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane’s World Armies.

“These jihadi groups … have recognized that it is pointless to send an untrained jihadi into Iraq — partly because it is more likely to disrupt the struggle than assist it,” he said.

Rather, he said, the organizations “are moving in highly trained operatives who can work on the ground with Iraqis in a ‘value-added’ capacity by imparting strategy and know-how.”

Col. David A. Teeples, the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, agreed.

“What these groups do is send a few over the border to help with training in this area and then move on,” he said. “We are finding that they like to bring together five or six individuals into a cell and practice making bombs, then they push out of here to link up with other network contacts.”

Most foreign fighters, said Col. Teeples, do not enter or leave Iraq with weapons.

“Everything they already need, including guns and bombs, is right here in Iraq at their disposal when they arrive,” he said.

Col. Teeples cited the capture of nearly a dozen Saudi and Yemeni militants on the Syrian border during the past two weeks as evidence that a steady trickle of foreign fighters is entering Iraq. His forces have confronted several small groups and arrested nearly a dozen of what he referred to as “high-value targets” in recent days in a sweep that was scheduled to wind up yesterday.

It is dangerous work. The military announced yesterday that two members of the regiment were killed and a third was wounded Saturday when a task force was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and automatic fire east of Husaybah.

Husaybah, the largest city on the border, has been the focus of a massive house-to-house sweep for the insurgents’ rat lines, according to Lt. Col. Joe Buche.

“Rat lines are the kind of the movement you would get from a rat when you turn on the lights — they scurry from place of cover to place of cover. They move to one site, they rest, and somebody else is watching out for them. They can then move to another site on command, so that they are not exposed.

“The insurgents have a series of small cells, and the small cells know what their own are doing,” he added. “If we can get the guys in the center, then the whole network could fall apart.”

Gaining solid intelligence on the Iraqi resistance and its links to al Qaeda remains a daunting task. Many of the several hundred recent detainees on the border have been accused only of curfew violations, of carrying small satellite phones similar to the type often used by smugglers or of not having proper identification.

In fact, three detainees caught in northern Iraq would be the first confirmed members of al Qaeda to be captured in the country if initial reports are borne out.

Asked during the weekend whether any al Qaeda members had been captured, Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, told the Associated Press in Mosul that three Iraqi members of the group were captured two weeks ago.

“We take them, we process them through a detention facility … and if all the facts wind up, they go to Baghdad and … that’s the last I ever hear from them,” he said.

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