U.S. military commanders think senior foreign fighters in Fallujah have escaped during the Marines’s monthlong siege that has produced an inconsistent allied war policy.
Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition continues to come under deadly attacks from black-clad militiamen loyal to radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.
Despite vowing to “capture or kill” the renegade sheik, the United States has refrained from using force against him or to launch an all-out assault on his Mahdi’s Army. The United States fears such an attack would inflame the passions of Shi’ites in battles that also are likely to result in the deaths of civilians.
A military source said if international terrorist Abu Musaab Zarqawi was ever in Fallujah, as was suspected, he was able to escape. The source said although the Marines blocked roads leading out of the town of 300,000 residents, the cordoning was not “airtight.” He said the assessment that senior fighters have left Fallujah is based on intelligence reports.
“The problem is they don’t know where they have gone,” the source said.
The assessment comes as the United States is sending conflicting signals about how it plans to quell the violence in Fallujah, a troublesome hot spot ever since the coalition ousted Saddam Hussein 13 months ago.
The mixed message has allowed insurgents to claim victory and has forced commanders to deny they are pulling out of the frontier town.
The confusion comes at a particularly bad time. The Bush administration is trying to contain damage from the release of photos of American service members abusing Iraqi prisoners images that reinforce the militant Arab view that the occupation force oppresses Muslims.
U.S. commanders have estimated that there are about 2,000 hard-core insurgents in Fallujah, including several hundred foreign fighters. A Pentagon official says there are probably “several thousand” foreign fighters in Iraq, many of whom entered through Syria’s long desert border.
The U.S. mission around Fallujah has been marked by inconsistencies since early April, when the ambush and mutilation of four American contractors there spurred the Marines to begin an offensive to clear the town of militants.
“They are testing the water in every possible alternative to resolve this without further loss of American blood and treasure,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis. “The Marine commanders are faced with a Hobson’s choice, and they are desperately trying to find an alternative to continued sieges, bombardment and patrols that are being shot up.”
The Marines had launched a full-bore operation to kill or capture the insurgents, only to see political pressure from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council force Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, to stop the mission.
What followed was a tenuous cease-fire, during which the Marines attacked insurgents who came into the open or attempted to position themselves for attacks. It was during this stage that the military thinks some senior foreign fighters escaped.
The Sunni tribal chiefs, the council and Marine commanders then worked out a deal under which a new Iraqi brigade would be established to police Fallujah’s mean streets. As the new brigade entered the southern sector, the Marines vacated, stirring a series of press reports that the Marines were withdrawing. Some Iraqis celebrated the “defeat.”
The perception prompted Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to issue a heated denial.