October 6, 2005

US says W. Iraq operations to run until election

By Sebastian Alison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A series of U.S. military strikes in
western Iraq will continue at least until December to try to
stop insurgents entering from Syria before a general election,
the top U.S. army spokesman in Iraq said on Thursday.

"We're going to fight our way to the referendum, and we're
going to fight our way to the election," Major General Rick
Lynch told a news conference, referring to an October 15
referendum on a new Iraqi constitution and the December
parliamentary vote.

U.S. forces launched a wave of assaults in Iraq's Euphrates
valley in late September, with new operations getting under way
in October.

Washington and Baghdad see the stretch of the Euphrates
valley running from the Syrian border to the town of Ramadi,
110 km (70 miles) west of Baghdad, as the main entry route for
arms and insurgents before they spread across the country.

Iraq is entering a busy political period, with the
referendum on the contentious new constitution due to be
followed swiftly by the trial of ousted leader Saddam Hussein
on October 19, and the parliamentary election in December.

Lynch said he expected an increase in violence as the
referendum approaches. A bomb attack on a mosque in the
southern town of Hilla killed at least 25 people on Wednesday.

Iraq's government is dominated by southern Shi'ites and
northern Kurds, who believe they have most to gain if the
constitution is adopted, and broadly support it.

But the charter is fiercely opposed by many Sunni Arabs,
who make up just 20 percent of the population but dominated
Iraq under Saddam and for decades before him.

Sunnis are leading the insurgency against the government
and its U.S. backers, and Lynch said there were now 4,800 U.S.
forces and 4,200 Iraqi troops taking part in the Euphrates
valley operations to target them.


The two biggest assaults are Operation Iron Fist,
concentrated around the town of Si'ida some 12 km (seven miles)
from the Syrian border, and Operation River Gate, in the
central Euphrates valley.

"Operations continue and operations will continue through
to the election," Lynch said, adding that they had three main

"That we deny terrorists and foreign fighters the Euphrates
river valley as an avenue of approach into Iraq; that we deny
any safe havens to the insurgency along the Euphrates river
valley; and we ... allow the Iraqi government to re-establish
control over their border with Syria."

Syria denies that its border is an easy entry point for
insurgents heading to Baghdad and other cities, but Washington
has warned that it is running out of patience with Damascus.

Lynch said one strategy of Operation River Gate was to
destroy some of the bridges over the Euphrates, reducing the
number of possible crossing points and keeping the remaining
ones under the control of U.S. or Iraqi forces.

He showed pictures of three bridges with their central
sections missing, saying they were at the towns of Dulab,
Barwana and Haditha. He added that the central spans had been
destroyed by precision bombing.

"There were 12 bridges from the Syrian border to Ramadi.
Were is the operative term," he said.

"There are now four. Those four that remain are under the
control of the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces."