US and Iraqi forces battled insurgents yesterday in a town near the border with Syria as part of a military sweep aimed at preventing foreign fighters from entering the country.
The goal of Operation Steel Curtain, launched early on Saturday, "is to restore security along the Iraqi-Syrian border and destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorist networks operating throughout [the town of] Husaybah," the military said.
US officials have long held that foreign al-Qaeda fighters enter Iraq through the border with Syria via the Euphrates valley.
As they entered Husayba, US and Iraqi forces have encountered "sporadic resistance -- mostly small arms fire and improvised explosive devices -- from al-Qaeda in Iraq-led insurgents throughout the city," the military said late Saturday.
At least nine air strikes were called on positions described as "enemy strong points," and a separate strike was carried out against a suspected car bomb.
There were no reports of any military or civilian casualties, the military said.
However there is an undetermined number of insurgent casualties, said the military, which is keeping a tight lid on information from the region.
The operation, involving 1,000 Iraqi army soldiers as well as 2,500 Marines, sailors and soldiers, is one of the biggest joint military operations in the vast restive Sunni Arab province of al-Anbar.
The Iraqi and US forces are also housing and feeding some 400 town residents, the military said.
US officials are especially proud of Iraqi scouts, people they described as "specially recruited soldiers from the al-Qaim region," who are embedded with the front-line units that help "identify insurgent strong points and areas known to contain these homemade bombs."
Steel Curtain follows two earlier operations also along the Euphrates valley in al-Anbar. But this operation is different because it is also designed to set up a joint US-Iraqi permanent presence along the border.
The US forces have been unable to leave garrisons in towns they have cleared of insurgents until recently, when enough trained and equipped Iraqi forces were available, US officials said earlier.
In other Iraq-related news, a UN watchdog agency said on Saturday that the US should reimburse Iraq for US$208 million in apparent overcharges paid to a Halliburton Co.
The International Advisory and Monitoring Board for the Development of Iraq conducted a special audit on Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown and Root unit for the procurement and distribution of fuel products and the restoration of Iraq's oil infrastructure.
The monitoring board cited charges of US$208 million, costs that earlier had been questioned by US military auditors.