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.
Zarqawi used Fallujah as a command center, but is thought to have left the city well before the current battle, military sources told The Washington Times last summer. Coalition troops have found execution chambers apparently used by Zarqawi and other terrorists to kill hostages, some by beheading.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said yesterday that the coalition has killed and captured “hundreds” of insurgents in Fallujah.
“The Marines are making it look a lot easier than it really is, and that’s what professionals do,” said Gen. Myers, making a Veterans Day appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other morning news shows.
“It’s been some hard fighting. And there have been a lot of insurgents, many, many insurgents, hundreds and hundreds of insurgents who have either been killed or captured in this activity so far,” he said.
Reporters embedded with troops have written about Iraqis fighting side by side with Americans. Although there is not a final count, it appears that most Iraqi units fought rather than ran, as they did in the spring when upheavals in the south, north and west threatened to turn the country into chaos.
“Iraqis that are fighting with us have done a terrific job, and there’s approximately about 3,000 of them that are doing that,” said Gen. Myers, upping an earlier estimate that 2,000 Iraqis took part. “This is about the new Iraq. This is about Iraqis making it secure for their own citizens, and they’re fighting and they’re dying right next to our Marines.”
Questioned on NBC’s “Today Show” about the relatively small number of enemy fighters left in Fallujah, Gen. Myers said, “The whole point is not how many insurgents are killed or captured, but to return Fallujah to a status where the people of Fallujah can go about their business without intimidation and where hopefully, come January, we’ll have elections and where they can participate.”
Gen. Myers also sought to counter any notion that quelling Fallujah means the end of the fighting in Iraq. He said the very nature of an insurgency is to attack from different locations.
“If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our hope,” he said.
Retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, said U.S. troops will be there for at least another one to three years.
“Fallujah won’t be the end of the problem in Iraq, but it is the beginning of the end of the problem in Iraq,” he told a conference in Lisbon.