Thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed along the border with Syria since 2004, in an attempt to halt the flow of Sunni insurgents into Iraq.
"Iraqi army and border elements have reestablished presence on the Syrian border," Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, said on Jan. 13. "Unfortunately, all of this has been accomplished at a terrible price."
Vines said more than 800 U.S. and other coalition soldiers have been killed in the effort to control the Syrian border. The general said Iraq sustained more than twice the number of casualties.
U.S. officials said that over the last year U.S. Marines and special forces units have been patrolling the 600-kilometer Iraqi-Syrian border. They said the units have been allowed to fire into Syria as part of their effort to stop the influx of Sunni insurgents into Iraq.
"The troops are allowed to fire over the border to stop the insurgents from entering Iraq," an official said. "There have not been any directives that would allow ground troops to enter Syria."
Most of the time, Syrian troops refused to respond to U.S. fire, officials said. The exception was in July 2005, when several Syrians were killed in a battle with U.S. Army Rangers along the border area. Later, Syria relayed a protest to the U.S. embassy in Damascus.
Officials said the U.S. deployment along the Syrian border has slowed down the influx of insurgents into Iraq. They said the U.S. presence has been bolstered by an increasing number of trained Iraq Army units.
U.S. military pressure on Syria began in 2004. Officials said the military conducted intelligence missions in Syria. In other cases, U.S. helicopters and troops punched into Syria in an effort to capture insurgents.
At the same time, the Defense Department recommended that additional measures be taken to eliminate Sunni insurgency strongholds in Syria. In October 2005, the White House discussed the use of special operations forces for missions in Syria.
No decision was taken, officials said. They said the administration did not want to widen the war in Iraq.
Still, the U.S. military was said to have seized the initiative against Al Qaida and other Sunni strongholds along the Syrian border. They said about 10 operations from May to December 2005 dismantled numerous cells and killed hundreds of fighters in western Iraq.
"Many of them are dead," Vines said. "There are a fair number of indicators that tell us currently Al Qaida in Iraq is in disarray. Does it have the capability to regenerate? Unfortunately, it could. But we must keep the pressure on."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has launched an effort to enhance the skills of Iraqi police deployed near the Syrian border.
The U.S. military has brought hundreds of Iraqi police cadets from Anbar for training in Baghdad. The training was meant to last eight weeks in an effort to improve the counter-insurgency skills of Iraqi security forces in the most violence province in the country.
"The training of Iraqi police has been deemed a priority in 2006," a U.S. official said. "We are sending thousands of advisers to train and mentor everything from civilian to special force police units."
In all, 400 Iraqi police cadets left the Anbar capital of Ramadi for Baghdad on Jan. 13. About half of the police recruits were from Qaim, located near the Syrian border and regarded as a major stronghold of the Sunni insurgency.