The U.S. military thinks many insurgents fled Fallujah, blending in with the waves of Iraqi civilians who were given weeks to leave before the coalition invaded and disappointing war planners who were hoping to kill a huge number of enemy guerrillas there, military officials said yesterday.
Some fighters are thought to have settled in towns outside Baghdad and near Samarra. They will attempt to regroup and resume attacks, said officials who asked not to be named.
“We figured that a bunch of them sneaked out with the civilian population and left some stupid ones behind to get killed,” a senior defense official said.
This official said there are reports that some Fallujah fighters moved to areas near Baghdad and towns north of the capital.
U.S. commanders, in a big disappointment, have revised downward the estimated number of fighters inside Fallujah when coalition forces launched a multiprong assault on the city on Sunday. Commanders had hoped to wipe out a huge number of enemy fighters.
In fighting yesterday, Marines captured more neighborhoods in Fallujah, meeting little resistance in the insurgent-heavy section of Jolan. But capturing the city came with a cost. The command reported that 18 Americans and five Iraqi soldiers have died in the assault on Fallujah.
Although the resistance was not as heavy as expected in Fallujah, terrorists counterattacked in other areas of Iraq. A car bomb in Baghdad killed 17 persons. In the north, in Mosul and Baiji, Iraqis went on a rampage, stealing weapons and setting police stations afire.
Before springing Marines, Army soldiers and Iraqi forces on enemy-held Fallujah, the command in Baghdad thought there were at least 2,000 insurgents, and perhaps as many as 5,000.
But the coalition forces have failed to find large clusters and now think that there might have been less than 1,000, military sources said yesterday.
The senior defense official said some generals now think there might have been 600 or fewer.
“People are disappointed,” said one source, adding that commanders had hoped to kill far more insurgents and take a big bite of their ability to launch anti-coalition bombings and attacks across the country.
Even though the military never put a complete seal around Fallujah, there was a hope that many insurgents would not want to risk capture and therefore would stay in the city for a last stand, military officials said.
But for political reasons, the Pentagon was forced to have commanders telegraph the impending attack. The coalition dropped leaflets urging civilians to flee. And Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi allowed negotiations with insurgent leaders to proceed for weeks to placate Sunni Muslims in his administration.
Pentagon officials have other theories on what happened to insurgents. One is that there never were large numbers of insurgents inside the city.
And there is the possibility that regular air strikes against terrorist hide-outs in Fallujah killed up to hundreds. The United States blanketed the town in aerial surveillance to obtain exact locations of enemy fighters, many of them loyal to Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi.