updated 1/1/2006 6:36:03 PM ET 2006-01-01T23:36:03

Recent offensives near the Iraqi border with Syria have dealt a significant blow to al-Qaida and cut off the group’s ability to smuggle in foreigners through the volatile western area to join the insurgency, a U.S. commander said Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, commander of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force Forward, said the operations had “neutralized” the group’s ability to use the vast Euphrates River valley to organize and attract followers.

The fighting helped restore Iraqi control of the border with Syria to eliminate smuggling lines and paved the way for successful Sunni Arab regional participation in Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, he said in an interview with a small group of reporters at this dusty U.S. base in al Asad, in western Anbar province near the Syrian border.

Decrease in bombings
He said U.S. forces had “dealt the enemy a ... significant blow out here in the western Euphrates, knocked him off of his stride, took away his areas where he was congregating, made it difficult for him to organize, and cut into his rat lines that run through this particular part of the country.”

He also said the number of suicide bombings had gone down, without giving specific numbers.

Brig. Gen. Boomer Milstead agreed.

“There’s been a significant decrease in the smuggling of fighters from Syria,” he said.

The expeditionary force leaders spoke on the sidelines of a visit by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Peter Pace, who is on a weeklong holiday tour with a group of entertainers to rally troops. The trip began Wednesday in Qatar, and included visits to Bahrain, Afghanistan and the east African nation of Djibouti.

Local insurgency persists
Johnson said a largely local insurgency persisted in western Iraq, although they sometimes worked with al-Qaida and other rogue elements.

“I think there’s a marriage of convenience between a number of them,” he said, adding he did not believe al-Qaida was a dominant factor.

“I believe we have neutralized his ability to do the things that he wanted to do out here. They’ve gone on to other places where it’s easier to operate,” he said, declining to elaborate on where those areas might be.

In the recent offensives, U.S. commanders used Iraqi forces, although Americans bore the brunt of the fighting.

Johnson praised Iraqi forces for their performance, saying 2,500 new forts had been established along the border. “We’ve restored control of the border to the Iraqis,” he said.

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