(AP) BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. troops sweeping through Fallujah on Thursday found what appeared to be a command center used by followers of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and a U.S. general expressed confidence the battle for the city has “broken the back of the insurgency.”
A separate raid near the suspected command center uncovered a bomb-making workshop where an SUV registered in Texas was being converted into a car bomb and a classroom that held flight plans and instructions on shooting down planes, according to a CNN crew embedded with the U.S. Army.
Gunbattles still flared in Fallujah as troops hunted holdout insurgents five days after the military said its forces had occupied the entire city 40 miles west of Baghdad. One U.S. Marine and one Iraqi soldier were killed, U.S. officials said.
At a base outside Fallujah, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the U.S. casualty toll in the Fallujah offensive stood at 51 dead and about 425 wounded. An estimated 1,200 insurgents have been killed, with about 1,025 enemy fighters detained, the military says.
Sattler told reporters he felt the U.S.-led attack on the city had dealt a serious blow to the insurgency.
“We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency. We’ve taken away this safe haven,” Sattler said, adding that insurgents had scattered elsewhere in Iraq where they lacked the resources available in their former stronghold.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, said they arrested 104 suspected insurgents in a raid in Baghdad, including nine who had fled Fallujah.
However, insurgents struck back elsewhere in volatile Sunni Muslim areas.
In Haditha, northwest of Fallujah, militants blew up the mayor’s office and the police command center with four thunderous explosions. Insurgents distributed leaflets warning that anyone who “wears a police uniform or reports to a police station will be killed.”
Car bombs in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk killed at least four people, while mortar shells that exploded near the governor’s office in Mosul wounded four guards, officials said. The governor of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad escaped assassination when a bomb exploded near his convoy, injuring four bodyguards.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials insisted the Fallujah campaign had produced a treasure trove of documents and other intelligence information that would help U.S. and Iraqi authorities hunt down insurgents. Sattler said lists included names of fighters, including some from outside Iraq.
Sattler, the senior Marine commander in Iraq, cautioned that the insurgent posts discovered Thursday were still being investigated.
“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 (car bombs) … and the other death and destruction that he has spread throughout the country of Iraq,” he said.
According to CNN’s footage, the suspected al-Zarqawi command center was in an imposing house with concrete columns and a large sign in Arabic reading “Al-Qaida Organization” and “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”
Al-Zarqawi’s group, Al-Qaida in Iraq, is considered the deadliest terrorist network in the country, held responsible for a string of deadly car bombings and gruesome kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including three Americans.
Inside the building, U.S. soldiers found documents, old computers, notebooks, photographs and copies of the Quran. Several bodies also were found.
There were also two letters inside the house, one from al-Zarqawi giving instructions to two of his lieutenants. Another sought money and help from the terrorist leader.
Nearby, in another location in the industrial section of southeastern Fallujah, troops found a bomb-making workshop where a sport utility vehicle with a Texas registration sticker was being rigged as a car bomb. CNN’s video also showed a makeshift classroom for training militants that included flight plans and instructions on how to shoot down aircraft.
The SUV was sitting in a warehouse surrounded by several bags of sodium nitrate, which can be used to make explosives. The vehicle had no license plate, but some 15 license plates were inside. Several bodies were also found in that area.
Iraqi authorities have acknowledged that al-Zarqawi, along with other insurgent leaders, escaped from Fallujah. Al-Zarqawi is wanted by both Jordan and the United States, and Washington has offered $25 million for information leading to his capture.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities launched the Fallujah operation as part of a campaign to restore order so national elections can be held in January.
The extremist Ansar al-Sunnah Army, in a statement found Thursday on the Internet, threatened to attack polling stations and assassinate candidates because democracy is an “infidel” institution.
Iraq’s interim government warned that Islamic clerics who incite violence will be considered as “participating in terrorism.” Some clerics already have been arrested.
The leaders of Poland and Slovakia said Thursday they are committed to keeping troops in Iraq and criticized Hungary’s decision this week to withdraw its 300 soldiers. Poland, which has 2,400 soldiers here, commands a 6,000-strong security force in southern Iraq that has troops from 15 countries. Slovakia has 100 experts in land-mine removal serving with the Polish-led force.