- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq, is on the run in an undeveloped western border region where he was nearly caught in recent weeks, a U.S. Marine commander says.

“He’s going from brush pile to brush pile just like a wet rat,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, whose 1st Marine Expeditionary Force is back home at Camp Pendleton, Calif., after months of intense combat in Anbar province. “I believe he possibly slid back into the Anbar area, possibly the hinterlands.”

Gen. Sattler, who commanded operations in the region, said in an interview with The Washington Times that the U.S.-led coalition has forced Zarqawi to work “independently” by killing or capturing his first- and second-string lieutenants.

Zarqawi fled the Anbar region before his base in Fallujah was captured by a Marine-Army force in November. He operated in northern Iraq until he was pressed back to western Iraq, but this time in isolated frontier country.

“He can’t use cell phones,” Gen. Sattler said of the Jordanian-born terrorist, whose capture promises a $25 million reward. “He can’t use any type of Internet. He doesn’t know who he can trust.”

Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists have strapped themselves in bombs and blown up hundreds of Iraqi civilians as well as coalition troops. In recent months, they have targeted Iraqi security forces, the linchpin in the Bush administration’s plan to bring permanent democracy to Iraq.

Gen. Sattler disclosed in the interview that his Marines and special operations troops came within a whisker of capturing the terror master “within the last six weeks” in western Iraq.

While guarded on details, Gen. Sattler said that only poor visibility in bad weather allowed Zarqawi to escape.

“The elements worked to his advantage,” the three-star general said.

Gen. Sattler led the force of Marines, Army tank battalions and Iraqis that took Fallujah in the largest battle in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

In all, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force of 41,000 troops spent a year in western Iraq before being relieved last month. The MEF saw about 300 of its personnel killed and 3,000 wounded, a Marine spokesman said.

Gen. Sattler, a Naval Academy graduate, assumed command in September.

Marines were ready to take Fallujah the previous April and had killed hundreds of insurgents before emerging politicians in Baghdad forced a halt. The summer standoff gave Zarqawi and other terrorists months to turn the city of 300,000 into a major base of operations, where bombs were made and suicide jihadists trained.

Pentagon officials privately say it was a big mistake to bend to the wishes of the Iraqi politicians and allow Zarqawi seven months to export violence. But U.S. officials in Baghdad say that without the halt in fighting the interim Iraqi government likely would have collapsed, leading to further political chaos.

Gen. Sattler said that in the interval the Marines did learn from the Fallujah fight in April, and from a subsequent battle in Najaf. Those lessons were applied to the November battle.

“I don’t think we could have fought as successfully in Fallujah had the first battle not culminated” in the way it did, he said.

The Marines learned to urge civilians to leave the city to reduce casualties and to make sure political support existed in Baghdad beforehand.

The interim also showed Gen. Sattler that he could not build an Iraqi security force in Anbar made up of local Sunni Muslims. Their loyalties were with family and tribe, not with the emerging democracy.

As a result, the U.S. command took down the national guard and built up 10 battalions in Anbar of Iraqis from other regions. A “very small” percentage are Anbar Sunnis, Gen. Sattler said.

Gen. Sattler declared in November that the victory in Fallujah had “broken the back of the insurgency.” He labeled as “cowards” those Zarqawi operatives who fled.

Today, he said, the attacks in the province are less frequent and less effective.

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