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Possible Zarqawi Command Center Found Near Fallujah

By Robert F. Worth and Edward Wong

the new york times

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq

U.S. military officials said Thursday that they had discovered a house in the devastated city of Fallujah that appears to have been a headquarters for guerrillas of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, while an American commander asserted that the 12-day offensive to take the city had “broken the back of the insurgency.”

Despite that assessment, gunbattles and mortar fire continued to shake the city and the commander, Lt. Gen. John Sattler of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said it would be “some time” before it is safe enough to allow many of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents to return. And a wave of assaults continued across areas of central and northern Iraq the areas dominated by Sunni Arabs, who controlled the country under Saddam Hussein.

Unlike during the aborted American assault on Fallujah last April, however, when fighters loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launched attacks in southern Iraq, Shiite regions have remained relatively quiet.

The apparent insurgent command center, in the south-central part of Fallujah, was taken by Americans on Sunday after a fierce gunbattle with up to 25 well-trained insurgents, said Maj. David Johnson of the 1st Infantry Division, who accompanied the Army unit that searched the house on Thursday after being alerted by Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi soldiers had discovered letters they believe were exchanged between Zarqawi and his lieutenants, the major said, along with computers, materials for making car bombs, identification papers that included a Sudanese passport, and medical supplies from the International Red Cross and the U.S. Agency for International Development. A classroom had a blackboard with drawings of American fighter jets.

Zarqawi’s network is believed to be responsible for ambushes, bombings and beheadings that have left hundreds dead across Iraq since the summer of 2003, and the recent assault on Fallujah was partly intended to destroy the most important base for the insurgency he fostered American commanders say Zarqawi almost certainly fled the city in the days or weeks leading up the offensive. Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, recently changed the name of his group from One God and Jihad to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.

The discovery of the command center came as Marines continued to engage in pitched firefights with pockets of insurgents in the southern part of Fallujah. A Marine and an Iraqi soldier were killed at sunset when they came under fire as they were trying to clear a building.

So far, at least 51 American servicemen have been killed and 425 wounded in the city since the American assault began on Nov. 8, Sattler said at a news conference here at Camp Fallujah, the Marine headquarters. Eight Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 43 wounded. About 1,200 insurgents appear to have been killed, the general said.

The offensive had crippled the insurgency and “disrupted them around the country,” he said.

But violence continued across central and northern Iraq. Bombings in Baghdad and two northern cities killed at least eight Iraqis. In Mosul, pushed to the brink of chaos by a revolt last week, rebels attacked a police station and lobbed 10 mortars at the provincial government center, wounding at least four of the governor’s bodyguards.