Iraqi security forces launched a large-scale campaign along the Syrian border on Monday (May 20th) in an attempt to sever contact between al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) in Syria, the defence ministry said.
The campaign comes at a time when Iraqi forces stationed at the border have been increasingly targeted by sniper fire from JAN fighters, who are active in Syria, officials told Mawtani.
In the first 24 hours of the campaign, army and police forces arrested 11 wanted al-Qaeda members and 32 suspects found in the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria, said Anbar police chief Maj. Gen. Hadi Kassar.
Security forces also seized short range rockets, mortar rounds, launch pads for locally manufactured rockets, explosive charges and 29 communication devices the men were using to contact terrorists active inside Syria, Kassar said.
The campaign is a joint effort, said Anbar operations commander Lt. Gen. Murdhi al-Mahalawi, with land and air troops, border guards and local police in Anbar province taking part.
The Iraqi forces are using advanced military techniques and high-level intelligence to conduct border surveillance and prevent gunmen from infiltrating from Iraq into Syria and vice versa, he told Mawtani.
The 8,000-strong campaign will comb 580 kilometres of the border in an effort to prevent Iraq from being transformed "into a rest station for any terrorist group", said Iraqi ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan.
It seeks to dry up all sources of financial and military support for al-Qaeda and JAN and destroy passageways used to smuggle supplies and men from one country to the other, he said.
Security has been enhanced along the border in recent weeks -- the number of watchtowers has been increased, and reinforcements have been deployed, Ghaidan told Mawtani.
This is because Iraqi security personnel have come under sniper fire from JAN, which controls border posts and watch towers inside Syria, he said.
Kassar said a number of Syrians living in JAN-controlled areas left their homes for Iraq as the group had begun to dominate their daily lives, depriving them of personal freedoms and issuing strict edicts "far from Islam, and from genuine Arab values and customs".
Al-Qaim mayor Farhan Futaikhan said the increased presence of army and police forces has been a relief to the residents of his town, which is adjacent to Syrian territory.
"The operation has not adversely affected the daily lives of residents because it is progressing according to a well-organised plan," he said.