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Marines Hunt Smugglers at Iraq-Syria Border

Times Staff Writer

Along hundreds of miles of lonely desert along the Iraq-Syria frontier, U.S. Marines have begun an aggressive effort to block weapons and foreign fighters from flowing into Iraq through one of the world’s most notorious smuggling corridors.

The Marines, who assumed authority over the sparsely populated region from the Army last week, are adding infantry and bolstering camps at several locations along the border while launching a campaign to win the allegiance of Iraqis living in small towns here.

The Marines say the process of stopping smugglers will be slow and dangerous. Two members of the force died soon after the operation began, Marine spokesmen said, when their Humvee hit a land mine along a smuggling route.

Five other Marines have been injured in attacks by insurgents or smugglers. On Monday, a group of Iraqis was detained after one of them threw a grenade at the Marines, a spokesman said.

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At another camp, known by the improbable name of Camp Korean Village, Marines discovered an arms cache including antiaircraft missiles, that they believe was stored no more than 24 hours earlier.

“It’s a game of inches. There are no home runs here,” said Maj. Anthony Henderson. “There’s a lot of fear among the population of retaliation by terrorists. It’s a fight we’re going to win, but we can’t win it in the immediate-gratification mind-set that Americans have.”

On Monday, Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, told his troops along the border that the mission was “going to be long, hot and dangerous.”

Even as Marines continue to shoot at smugglers and insurgents, others need to befriend villagers, who can provide information about the smugglers, Mattis said.

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“The worst thing the enemy can have is a population that is happy to have you here,” Mattis told hundreds of troops at an abandoned Iraqi rail yard being used as a base. “As it gets hotter and one of your buddies gets hit, you’ve got to keep waving.... We’re going to win hearts and minds.”

The smuggling routes date back centuries to an era when camels provided the only mode of travel and were used to circumvent U.N. sanctions after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Today, smugglers presumably cross the border in sport-utility vehicles like everyone else via the freeway that connects the two countries, defying the reconstituted Iraqi border patrol force.

Marines are not attempting to block all smuggling. Smugglers of cigarettes or other consumer items into Iraq are not being detained. But those with weapons are being taken into an expanding camp.

“You have to pick your fights,” said Staff Sgt. Shelby Lasater. “This place is the testing ground before [insurgents] can get to Fallouja and Baghdad.”

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Military intelligence officers believe that some insurgents attacking the U.S. military are from other countries in the region, drawn to Iraq to participate in a jihad, or holy war, against the Americans.

Front-line Marines say they were surprised to see the unguarded border.

“People say the U.S.-Mexico border doesn’t really exist,” said Lance Cpl. Akram Falah, an Arabic translator. “Here the border is a joke. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get help from people here. Smuggling has been a way of life for centuries.”

Along with the 24-hour anti-smuggling patrols -- conducted by troops who were among the first to storm Baghdad last year -- the Marines are trying to win popular support by rebuilding schools and rural clinics.

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Much of the anti-smuggling effort is a game of wits, with Marines daring smugglers to attempt to cross into Iraq.

“We let them see us during the day in a show of force,” 1st Lt. Jeff King said. “Then we sit back, watch and wait.”

Stretching about 400 miles, the border between Syria and Iraq has been a source of friction for decades. In a recent interview with a Lebanese newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad suggested that smuggling was endemic and unstoppable.

But the Marines are pressing on. The troops will walk “beats” in border towns to spread their message and ask for support. Vehicle checkpoints have been established. Marines have begun “cordon and knock” operations to search houses for suspects and weapons.

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“It’s a tricky situation,” 1st Lt. Thomas O’Neil said. “You’re dealing with terrorists mixed in with the local population, and you never know who’s who.”

Although the landscape is bleak and the hot wind seems to blow in all directions, troops say they welcome an active role.

“We’re out there to get the bad guys off the street,” Lasater said.


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