- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

The lasting cease-fire in Fallujah has let U.S. Marines pull more forces from around the city and use them in new operations to stop foreign fighters from setting up safe houses in Iraqi villages near the border.

The new mission involves infantry units of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force going town to town to eliminate any safe houses being used by fighters to infiltrate Iraq and kill coalition soldiers and citizens.

Maj. Gen. John Sattler, director of operations for U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said a new Iraqi brigade, under command of an Iraqi general, is keeping the peace so well in Fallujah since a May 3 cease-fire that Marine commanders have been able to spare extra troops.

“They were able to go ahead and pull some of those forces back out to not only secure their borders [but also to] make sure that there are no safe havens in those towns,” Gen. Sattler told reporters at the Pentagon via a conference call.

Sealing the Syrian border is one of the U.S.-led coalition’s main missions this spring as it seeks to create a secure environment for Iraq’s first free elections next year. Pentagon officials estimate there are several thousand foreign fighters, terrorists and mujahideen in Iraq, many of whom pass through Syria.

Coalition forces have captured or killed guerrillas from virtually every country in the region, including Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan and Somalia.

Officials accuse Syria, led by a Ba’athist government that supports international terrorist groups, of facilitating the movement of foreign fighters by providing them with fake passports and staging areas.

The Bush administration earlier this month slapped new economic sanctions on Syria for failing to stop its support of terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Gen. Sattler said the May 3 cease-fire is holding so well in the violence-prone frontier town that Marines have been pulled from check points and cordon patrol for those border operations.

In was in one of those missions on May 18 that, some Iraqis claim, U.S. forces bombed a wedding party in a hamlet near the border.

However, the Pentagon has firmly denied the charge. It agrees that about 40 persons were killed, but contends the air strikes targeted a halfway house used by foreign guerrillas. At the bombing scene, Marines found false documents and weapons normally used by foreign operatives.

Said Gen. Sattler, “We are very comfortable that what we struck that night, based on intelligence that I really can’t get into, that we did, in fact, hit a safe house, which was, in fact, harboring those who would bring harm and discredit and [derail] the sovereignty process for the Iraq people.”

The U.S.-led coalition plans to turn over the government in Baghdad to Iraqis on June 30.

The general said the Marines continue to monitor Fallujah, a city of 300,000 west of Baghdad that has resisted the occupation from the start. He said U.S. forces still demand the apprehension of those who killed and mutilated four American contractors who were guarding a supply convoy.

The killing spurred the Marines to resume counterinsurgency operations inside the city that killed hundreds of enemy fighters, but also took the lives of a undetermined number of civilians.

“No one has walked away from Fallujah,” Gen. Sattler said. “We are working very closely with the Fallujah Brigade.”

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