The top Marine officer in Iraq declared yesterday that victory in the battle of Fallujah has “broken the back” of the Iraqi insurgency, while another commander in the war on terror said Osama bin Laden is all but cut off from his terrorist operatives.
The twin statements declare success on the two main war fronts — Iraq and Afghanistan — where the U.S. military is fighting a deadly insurgency and trying to create lasting democracies.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters that 11 days after invading Fallujah, the one-time insurgent stronghold is secure, but not yet safe. His ground troops were carrying out a “search-and-clear phase,” he said.
Based on intelligence that shows Fallujah was an enemy command center, Gen. Sattler asserted, “We feel right now that we have … broken the back of the insurgency, and we have taken away this safe haven.”
Master terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi is thought to have used Fallujah as his base for recruiting and deploying suicide bombers in what the military calls “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” (VBIEDs).
Gen. Sattler said the insurgency, in losing Fallujah, has lost “your location and your means for command and control, you lose your lieutenants, which we have taken out of the Zarqawi network over the course of the last almost three months on a very precise basis. … And you also lose the turf where you’re operating, the town that you feel comfortable moving about in, where you know your way about. Now you’re scattered.”
He added, “I believe, I personally believe, across the country, this is going to make it very hard for them to operate. And I’m hoping that we’ll continue to breathe down their neck.”
Some Pentagon officials say privately that they do not share Gen. Sattler’s optimism.
They said this week that the countrywide insurgency has shown itself to be an adaptable band of dedicated killers that likely will be able to recruit new members and sustain some level of violence for years, not just months.
Although Fallujah is considered “secure” in military terms, it is not cleared of insurgents, even though the Marines estimate that they along with Army soldiers and Iraqi security forces killed about 1,200 enemy fighters. Gen. Sattler said the coalition is now searching buildings among Fallujah’s bombed-out rubble to make sure each is cleared of terrorists.
Some of the 51 Americans killed in the battle have died after triggering an explosive device while opening a door or inspecting a room.
“We’re also purging the town of those who may have stayed behind and those who want to fight to the death, who want to just hide out, lay low, so that they can in fact disrupt the reconstruction and the re-establishment of essential services,” Gen. Sattler said.
The U.S. command thinks reconstructing Fallujah is almost as important as clearing it of insurgents.
If the enemy is able to disrupt rebuilding or block convoys of relief supplies, the coalition may not be able to win over Iraqi citizens who suffered during the war and guerrilla occupation. Raw feelings would, in turn, make it difficult for Iraqi security forces to keep the city free of terrorists.
“We will not move out too early,” Gen. Sattler said of his Marines stationed around the city.