Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
August 4, 2005

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Iraq Wants To Create Permanent Buffer Zone Around All Its Borders

The Iraqi government is moving to establish a permanent 10-kilometer-wide buffer zone around all its borders to hinder foreign fighters and weapons from entering the nation, according to a U.S. government liaison in Baghdad.

Such a “weapons-free zone” just inside the nation’s perimeter may also help the American military and fledgling Iraqi security forces kill or capture rebels within Iraq before they can flee into neighboring nations, officials say.

In the run-up to a recent U.S.-Iraqi joint military offensive against insurgents along the northwestern border with Syria, “there was discussion to create a permanent ‘weapons-free zone’ that would be 10 kilometers wide from the border extending into Iraq around the entire length of the Iraqi borders,” says William Sands, a U.S. adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s reconstruction and management office.

A buffer area would be set up “where practicable,” Sands said in an e- mail response to Inside the Pentagon’s questions. The caveat reflects the view that the United States and its allies in Iraq lack sufficient security personnel to effectively patrol the nation’s extensive frontiers with Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey.

U.S. officials have long pressed Syria, in particular, to stop the movement of fighters across its border with Iraq. Syrian leaders have denied charges they support the insurgency.

The concept for the new buffer zone was advanced by Iraqi Ministry of Defense officials at a meeting to plan this summer’s “Operation Veterans Forward,” according to Sands. The offensive, undertaken by elements of the U.S. Army 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and Iraq’s 3rd Infantry Division, was aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters and curbing smuggling around the Rabiya border crossing, officials say.

“The [buffer zone] idea was raised in an effort to give further arrest and detention rights” to Iraqi security forces or border enforcement personnel operating in the area, according to Sands. The U.S. official says he is unaware of a formal policy that might dictate how the buffer zone would work, “but there is a general sense of its existence” by officials in both the ministries of Defense and Interior.

It was unclear this week if U.S. military commanders on the ground were aware of detailed plans for the zone and how it might affect existing rules of engagement in the border area. Defense experts in Washington this week cautioned a lack of clarity about the rules for a weapons-free area along the national boundary could increase the risk of endangering innocent civilians.

The Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Hayat first reported May 27 that U.S. Army commanders were seeking a buffer zone on the Iraq-Syria border, according to Agence France Presse.

“From the U.S. administration’s point of view, it is faced with continuing violence in Iraq and growing evidence that Arab fighters, especially from the Persian Gulf, are crossing the border from Syria and receiving support and [funds] from inside the country’s borders,” Mamoun Fandy, a Mideast expert, wrote in a column posted early last month on the Web site of Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic-language daily. “This is what propels U.S. troops to enter Syrian territory in pursuit of resistance fighters.”

Fandy is a senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

Twenty-three Marines have been killed in fighting along the Syrian border over the past week. U.S. military operations there reportedly are part of an effort by Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to assert control over the Iraq-Syria border by November.

Under the leadership of Bashar Assad, Syria has been of two minds in its policy on the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Hisham Melhem, a Middle East expert and journalist, told ITP in a July 25 interview.

Like other Arab leaders, Assad and his lieutenants initially were quite critical of the U.S. war in Iraq, Melhem notes. Behind the scenes, Syria actively worked to undermine the American intervention by sending fighters into Iraq, according to experts. There was great concern in Syria that the regime-change effort in Iraq could offer a precedent for a similar action against Assad, Melhem and others say.

On the other hand, Syria has sought to avoid pushing the United States so far as to offer a justification for an American invasion of Damascus, experts say.

For its part, the Bush administration has greatly distrusted Syrian intentions. Some critics have said the White House missed a potential opportunity over the past couple years to publicly test Assad’s willingness to cooperate on Iraqi border issues (ITP, April 8, 2004,p1).

Recently, Syria has extended new offers to work jointly with the Americans on the problem, but trust has evaporated on both sides, Mideast watchers say.

“The problem for the Syrians now is that it is too little, too late,” Melhem tells ITP.

Melhem is Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar and hosts a weekly news program on the satellite network Al-Arabiya.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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