Battles rage on Syrian border

U.S. officials suspect tenacious fighters could be shielding banned arms


WASHINGTON - Out of sight of television cameras, some of the heaviest and most prolonged fighting in Iraq has been raging for nearly three weeks near the town of Qaim on the Syrian border.

There, British commandos and U.S. Special Forces have been attacking units of Iraq's Special Republican Guards and Special Security Services, according to senior military and defense officials.

The Iraqi forces in the area, along the Euphrates River, have been defending a large compound that includes phosphate fertilizer and water treatment plants. American officials say the sheer tenacity of the Iraqi fight has led them to suspect that the Iraqis may be defending Scud missiles or other weapons.

The Qaim area, about 170 miles northwest of Baghdad along the most direct route from Baghdad to Syria, was a launching point for Iraqi ballistic missile attacks in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. It was also home to a facility used by Iraq in 1980s for uranium processing, and it has been identified since by American officials as a possible site for any effort to revive Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

The reported doggedness of the Iraqi resistance has also prompted some speculation in the Bush administration that the Iraqi forces may be defending members of the Iraqi leadership who may have tried to flee to Syria. But defense officials said it was more likely that they were trying to shield weapons or weapons programs.

"They're protecting something; that's for sure," one senior military official said. For now, the official said, the main objective of the United States is "to keep their head down so they can't fire anything off."

Despite many days of attacks by the Army's Special Forces, including what one general called "unconventional warfare direct-action missions," along with repeated airstrikes, the Iraqi forces have not given up.

Pentagon officials said they had made contact with one Iraqi commander in the Qaim area in an effort to negotiate a surrender, but that that attempt had broken down.

With ground access limited, the American command has made the compound the target of heavy air attacks, but it has refrained from destroying the buildings altogether, apparently out of concern about causing wider harm if the area is being used to house chemical or biological weapons or material for nuclear weapons.

The mystery of the tenacity of armed Iraqi resistance in the remote border town is among many uncertainties that senior American officials are weighing as they survey the battlefield in Iraq. Now about one-third of the country lies outside American control, according to senior Pentagon officials.

Perhaps chief among those worries, officials said yesterday, are the location and intentions of Iraqi militias and security forces, which were battling the United States in Baghdad and other cities but have now mostly melted away.

"Have they run away for good, or are they operating more like the al-Qaida model, to go away for a while and then come back?" a senior defense official said.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted intelligence reports saying that some officials of the Iraqi government had fled to Syria and, in some cases, onward to other countries. Yesterday, defense officials said there was no evidence that those believed to have fled included any senior Iraqi leaders.

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