Rebel Fighters Who Fled Attack May Now Be Active Elsewhere

By EDWARD WONG and ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

November 11, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 10 - Insurgent leaders in Falluja probably fled before the American-led offensive and may be coordinating attacks in Iraq that have left scores dead over the past few days, according to American military officials here. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who is the most wanted man in Iraq, has almost certainly fled, military officials believe. Americans say his group is responsible for attacks, kidnappings and beheadings that have killed hundreds in more than a year. Before the offensive began, some military officials said Mr. Zarqawi could be operating out of Falluja, but his precise whereabouts have not been known. "I personally believe some of the senior leaders probably have fled," Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, said in a video conference with reporters on Tuesday. "I would hope not, but I've got to assume that those kinds of leaders understand the combat power we can bring."

Insurgent attacks continued to exact a heavy toll across Iraq on Tuesday. Two American soldiers died in a mortar attack in Mosul, where government authority appears to be ebbing. Gunmen assassinated a senior government official in Samarra. Guerrillas fired mortars at police stations in downtown Baghdad while hundreds of fighters massed in the center of the provincial capital of Ramadi, just 30 miles west of Falluja.

A suspected car bombing outside an Iraqi National Guard base in Kirkuk killed three people and wounded two others, Reuters reported. The attacks on Tuesday followed several others over the weekend, both in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle.

The American military said on Tuesday that six people had been killed in the car bomb attack Monday night outside Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad. Five were Iraqi policemen, and the sixth was a civilian, the military said. In the two church bombings the same night, one Iraqi was killed and several wounded, and one of the bombers was disguised as an Iraqi policeman, according to a report put out by a Western security contractor.

This spate of what appear to be coordinated attacks, as well as the dispersal of top insurgent leaders, suggests that the Falluja offensive alone will not crush an insurgency that has been gathering strength. And it raises the prospect that insurgents will try to regroup and infiltrate Falluja after the fighting is over, as they have done in Samarra.

American military officials said that they anticipated a surge in violence timed to the Falluja invasion and Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that is supposedly auspicious for martyrdom. They say they are not under the illusion that an attack on Falluja will break the back of the insurgency, or that the capture of Mr. Zarqawi is a realistic goal. The objectives of the offensive are to deny a safe haven to the insurgents, install the presence of the Iraqi government in the city and ensure the area is secure enough so residents can freely vote in the upcoming elections, General Metz said.

"The important idea to consider is that this is not an operation against Zarqawi or his network," said a senior military official in Washington who has been monitoring the battle. "It is just one of many steps that need to be taken in order to defeat a complex and diverse insurgency in which the Zarqawi network is but one element.''

But other military officials in Baghdad and Washington are expressing concern that the operation could end up being both a public relations disaster and strategic setback if some top leaders are not captured.

"This is causing some concern because if Falluja comes up a 'dry hole,' after all the operations, we will have to explain it," said a military official in Baghdad. "We will have to address it if this happens. If we don't retain any senior leadership, it may cause backlash."

An insurgent who gave his nom de guerre as Abu Khalid and identified himself as a mid-level commander said in a telephone interview that leaders had decided two days before the offensive to flee the city and leave only half of the insurgents behind to fight.

"From a military point of view, if a city is surrounded and bombarded, then the result of the battle is preordained," Abu Khalid, a major in the former Iraqi army, said. "It's not a balanced battle. So we told half of our fighters to leave the city and the other half to stay and defend it."

General Metz said the absence of insurgent leaders could explain why the defense of Falluja seemed to lack military cohesiveness. Though some forces are engaged in fierce house-to-house combat, several Marine commanders on the ground have said they have been surprised by the relative lack of resistance from the guerillas. By early Wednesday, the Marine and Army units that punched through the northern barricades at the start of the assault had swept past the main east-west highway.

The recent wave of assaults that prompted Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to declare a state of emergency appeared to have been a loosely coordinated counterattack to the American-led offensive, senior military officials said.

They have shown the guerrillas can strike with great effect outside of Falluja, and even while that city is under siege. Since last Saturday, scores of Iraqis, many of them security officers, have been killed in attacks ranging from bomb and mortar attacks on police stations in Samarra to suicide car bombings of Christian churches in Baghdad. At least six American troops and one British soldier have been killed in assaults outside of Falluja. The American military reported 130 attacks on Monday, well above the average of 80 a day over most of the summer.

Other senior officers said that an unknown number of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 insurgents in Falluja had escaped, but not necessarily all the leaders. The American military did not seal off Falluja completely until Sunday night, when soldiers stormed a hospital and two bridges on the western edge of the city. American commanders on the ground in Iraq say up to 90 percent of the city's residents fled in the build-up to the offensive, and guerillas could well have been among them.

Abu Khalid, the guerrilla fighter, said insurgent leaders had debated how many men to leave in the city.

"There were different views about that," he said. "They discussed percentages like 20 percent inside the city and 80 percent outside, to save as many fighters as possible for future operations. In the end, they settled on a 50-50 split."

"We told the fighters that those who want to stay alive and fight should leave, and those who want to become martyrs in this battle should stay," he said.

Abu Khalid argued that even if the Americans take the city, they will lose in the long run, because "the Americans will raid houses and arrest a lot of people, and this will increase resentment and hatred and give the resistance more support in the city."

Canny insurgents rarely stand and fight, and they often take advantage of their ability to blend in with civilians and melt away. And for them, the propaganda campaign is as important, if not more so, than the strictly military one, since the most immediate goal is to win the support of the people.

Starting Monday, as American and Iraqi forces swept through Falluja from the north, they found insurgents falling back.

Even in the warren of alleyways of the northwest Jolan neighborhood, the scene of the some of the toughest fighting in April, when the Marines first tried an ill-fated invasion, American commanders said they had encountered less resistance than they thought they would.

In a recent offensive in Samarra, American-led forces swept through rebel-held territory, only to have the insurgency return soon afterward.

On Saturday, as final preparations were under way for the Falluja assault, insurgents in the Samarra area staged coordinated car bomb and mortar attacks that left at least 30 dead, many of them policemen.

Now insurgents are touting Samarra, as well as other violence-ridden towns around Iraq, as a model of their own tenacity.

"The Americans are mistaken if they think they think they are going to end the resistance by occupying Falluja," Abu Khalid said. "What about Samarra? Baquba? Tal Afar? And maybe also in some cities in the south in the future. The resistance is not in Falluja only."

Edward Wong reported from Baghdad for this article and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Thom Shanker, in Washington, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times, in Baghdad, contributed reporting