Thursday, September 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi and U.S. forces are preparing to seize five towns along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border that have fallen under the control of terrorists, an Iraqi official said yesterday.

“Just as with our Tal Afar operation, D-Day is not announced until well after we go on in — and you can take it that D-Day has either happened or is about to,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Tal Afar is a village on the Syrian border that U.S. forces say was effectively rid of “terrorists and foreign fighters” earlier this month in a U.S.-Iraqi offensive. But many of the insurgents escaped.

In the five towns now under insurgent control, a ruthless Taliban-style regime has been imposed, a U.S. Marine commander told an embedded American reporter.

“For the time being, they run these towns,” Lt. Col. Julian Alford, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment stationed outside the western Iraqi town of Qaim, told reporter Anna Badkhen of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments have stepped up their criticism of Syria recently because of its failure to curb the movement of foreign militants across the porous 450-mile border.

Iraq’s al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi has boasted over the Internet that the five towns have become “The Islamic Republic of Qaim.”

The towns are Ubaydi, Qaim, Sada, Karabila and Dulaym al-Husayba.

The area comprises desert broken by lush riverside fields. It is populated by about 100,000 Sunni Arabs with a long tradition of cross-border smuggling activities.

Marines just outside Ubaydi told the Chronicle reporter that they come under attack every time they approach it and that U.S. troops do not enter the town, where the insurgents appear to have free rein.

The highway leading into it is marked with anti-American and anti-Iraqi government billboards signed by “al Qaeda organization.”

One large metal billboard warns people not to become “spies.”

Another billboard says, “Our religion will not be strong without the book and the sword.”

By late last night, the U.S.-led coalition had not responded to queries about the five towns.

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