Osama bin Laden or other senior al Qaeda leaders are trying to communicate with Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is operating what the United States concedes is a “very effective” terrorist ring in Iraq, a senior general said yesterday.
Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy chief of U.S. Central Command, said intelligence shows that bin Laden now communicates strictly through couriers. This is to avoid having his voice electronically intercepted, which could give away his location in the vast Pakistani tribal lands near Afghanistan.
“Hence you end up using very slow means of trying to communicate, whether it’s couriers that carry compact discs from Pakistan or Afghanistan through Iran or through other countries to Zarqawi,” Gen. Smith told reporters at the Pentagon.
The disclosure is further evidence that the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, who has maintained links with al Qaeda, now is apparently a full-fledged member. It means that American troops are trying to kill or capture one of al Qaeda’s most effective and deadly terrorists, and perhaps the second-most-revered among Islamic militants, after bin Laden himself.
“We do have indications that we believe they are trying to communicate,” Gen. Smith said. “Whether it is to congratulate him on having announced that he wants to be part of al Qaeda, or whether it’s to communicate and give him instructions or what it is, we don’t know. But we do believe that through the process they are trying to communicate.”
Gen. Smith said that the United States believes al Qaeda senior leaders are giving overall guidance to Zarqawi and his followers rather than tactical advice. “You all need to hold the course and attack the coalition and attack those members of those infidels with the government,” is the way Gen. Smith described the guidance.
The U.S. command in Baghdad previously had disclosed intercepting a letter written by Zarqawi to bin Laden. In it, Zarqawi expressed frustrations that the killing of Americans had not resulted in President Bush’s pulling troops out of Iraq.
Zarqawi, who fought U.S. troops in Afghanistan before going to Baghdad for medical treatment, leads cells of foreign and Iraqi terrorists of undetermined numbers. The cells are believed responsible for a series of suicide car bombings and beheadings that have killed hundreds of U.S. personnel and allied Iraqis.
Zarqawi himself has beheaded hostages, then released the gruesome videos. A reward for capturing him is $25 million, but so far, as with bin Laden, no one is willing to turn him in.
Zarqawi is believed to have used Fallujah as his command center, but fled long before a Marine-led invasion captured the city last week.
“I think Zarqawi sort of left his followers in the city to fight and he booked,” Gen. Smith said. “I don’t have any proof that he’s someplace else, but we believe he did leave the city.”
Marines and soldiers did find a building thought to have housed Zarqawi followers. On one wall, a CNN news camera showed the words “Al Qaeda Organization.” Also found were computer files containing the names of foreign fighters from around the globe.
Gen. Smith said troops are going back through buildings originally cleared to make sure insurgents do not backtrack and establish new pockets of resistance. There was scattered fighting last night.
“It looks like these are some of the jihadists,” the three-star general said. “We’re not sure whether they’re foreign fighters or local, but what we see from them is the type of people that are there prepared to fight to the very last.”
He said some wear “explosive vests” that they plan to detonate if coalition troops come near.
Also found are facilities for making improvised explosive devices, both of the roadside and vehicle variety, which have killed many Americans and Iraqis.
Gen. Smith said the wave of violence nationwide inflicted by insurgency during the Fallujah battle is evidence of a “certain level of talking” among leaders, but not a “robust command and control system.”
He conceded that the killings, including beheadings, are affecting the average Iraqi. “I will tell you that the intimidation campaign that is ongoing is very effective,” he said. “We see it permeate many levels of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces.”
The hope is that Iraqis, like the Afghans who voted this fall, will go to the polls as scheduled in January despite the threats.
“It’s going to take a certain level of courage on the part of the Iraqis,” Gen. Smith said.
On Thursday, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the top Marine officer in Iraq who commanded the Fallujah operation, declared the victory had “broken the back” of the insurgency.
Yesterday, Gen. Smith said he could not make that statement “until we can get the intimidation campaign, the widespread intimidation campaign, under control.”
At another Pentagon briefing, U.S. contracting officials said a $100 million plan to rebuild Fallujah will begin in several weeks. Throughout Iraq, the U.S. Embassy plans to accelerate construction projects in a strategy that says the insurgents do not have sufficient fighters to bomb every site.
“One of our mechanisms to deal with that, frankly, is to start as many projects as we can, given the fact that we know the insurgents can’t be everywhere,” said Charles Hess, director of reconstruction in Baghdad.
“Consequently, the more projects we start, we are moving Iraqis out, we’re getting them employed, they are doing meaningful labor, they’re restoring their country, and in and of itself that is a very positive and powerful thing we want to accomplish between now and the elections in January.”
Congress has appropriated more than $18 billion for such projects, but less than $2 billion has been spent to date.