- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The expected takeover of Fallujah by coalition forces will not include a top prize — the capture of terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Military sources told The Washington Times that, although the American command once had indications that Zarqawi had set up shop within Fallujah’s mosque-lined streets, he fled the city weeks before Sunday’s major assault began.

The sources said the Jordanian-born terrorist began a sojourn throughout the country that took him to towns around Baghdad to recruit followers and plan attacks.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the tactical commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters yesterday that the allies did not have a tight ring around Fallujah until days before Operation New Dawn began.

Military sources have told The Times that it was virtually impossible to create an airtight seal around a city that has an estimated 300,000 residents. Besides, they said, it is difficult for sentries to tell who is an insurgent and who is a civilian trying to leave the embattled town.

“It wasn’t until night before last that we really began to seal off the city completely,” Gen. Metz told reporters at the Pentagon via a teleconference from the protected green zone in Baghdad. “And before that time, I think some leaders went in and out periodically. I personally believe that some of the senior leaders probably have fled.”

Asked specifically about Zarqawi, on whom the United States has placed a $25 million bounty, Gen. Metz said, “It’s fair to assume that he’s left,” adding: “We would then continue our intel effort across the country looking for him.”

Zarqawi, who fought U.S. forces in Afghanistan until an injury forced him to go to Baghdad for medical treatment, is a hands-on terrorist. He personally has beheaded captives in Iraq, including American Nicholas Berg.

He also greets newly arrived jihadists, who enter through the Syrian, Iranian and Saudi Arabian borders, and gives them targets to bomb. Often, within days of their arrival, a car bomb explodes, killing civilians.

An Islamic Web site says Zarqawi’s organization, formerly called Tawhid and Jihad, is responsible for virtually all the car bombings in Iraq. He targets Iraqi security forces cooperating with the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

“We think he moves around Iraq,” Gen. Metz said. “We are keeping the intel capability looking for him outside of Fallujah, also.”

In the battle for Fallujah, Gen. Metz said the invasion force of U.S. troops, bolstered by Iraqi commandos and army regulars, has broken through outer defenses and is encountering insurgents in small groups of about six.

The original thrust on Sunday and Monday divided two main northern neighborhoods, where the anti-coalition forces were thought to have clustered.

“We are operating according to our plan, and so far, we have achieved our objectives on or ahead of schedule,” said Gen. Metz, who commands the Third Corps at Fort Hood, Texas.

He said the enemy seems to lack basic command and control. What communications it does use have been disabled by electronic jamming.

“There are leaders in Fallujah that are orchestrating the battle to the best of their ability, which appears not to be very good,” Gen. Metz said.

At 2,000 Iraqi troops, Operation New Dawn represents the largest use of local troops to battle fellow Iraqis since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in April 2003.

“They have assisted in clearing buildings and homes, because it’s a manpower-intensive battle in the urban terrain,” Gen. Metz said. “And they have performed very well in all those clearing operations.”

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