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Archive for Saturday, July 19, 2008

Iraq crackdown focuses on smuggling

July 19, 2008

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— With al-Qaida 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 told The Associated Press on Friday.

The effort is aimed at smugglers who supply Shiite 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-Qaida and other insurgent forces that threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war. Shiite 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-Qaida 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.

Oates called the weapons smuggling from Iran "the last remaining major threat" to be handled for Iraq.

As for the overall state of the Iraq war, Oates said "security is the best we've seen it" in his part of the country. But he said he would counsel against deciding on further U.S. troop reductions until after Iraq's provincial elections, which are scheduled for October. He said the outcome would go a long way in determining whether the security gains of the past year can hold up with a smaller U.S. presence.

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