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.
Some Marine officers were quoted by reporters as saying that they might have found Zarqawi’s Fallujah headquarters. Gen. Sattler declined to go that far.
Intelligence officers have collected documents and computer files from several Fallujah buildings that list the names of fighters from around the world that heeded Osama bin Laden’s call to go to Iraq and wage jihad against the Americans.
“I cannot stand here and tell you that we found the command and control house or building where Zarqawi went ahead and orchestrated and dealt his VBIEDs, his suicide VBIEDs, and the other death and destruction that he has spread throughout the country of Iraq,” the three-star Marine general said.
Gen. Sattler referred to those insurgents who fled the city as “cowards” who “we will continue to pursue.”
Zarqawi is not the only big prize. U.S. forces are also hunting bin Laden. The CIA thinks he moves among the vast tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.
In a separate press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy chief of U.S. Central Command, said Pakistan’s unprecedented decision to deploy forces in the border region has dealt a blow to bin Laden and top aide Ayman al-Zawahri.
The Pakistanis have attacked and killed hundreds of terrorists loyal to al Qaeda, putting pressure on their leaders.
“They are living in the remotest areas of the world without any communications — other than courier — with the outside world or their people and unable to orchestrate or provide command and control over a terrorist network,” Gen. Smith said of the organization that carried out the September 11 attacks.
“They are basically on the run and unable to really conduct operations except, in very long term, provide vision and guidance as Osama bin Laden does when he provides one of those tapes,” said Gen. Smith, referring to bin Laden’s most recent video that railed against President Bush before the Nov. 2 election.
Bin Laden has been in hiding since September 11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and toppling of his chief ally, the Taliban.
The United States thinks that during the war, bin Laden moved from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan to the Tora Bora mountain range, from where he crossed into Pakistan avoiding an intensive manhunt.