FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. soldiers combing through the wreckage of Fallujah found a house Thursday that they believe may have been used by the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader who was a prime target of the assault on the rebel city.

The house was in the flashpoint southern sector of Fallujah, where some of the fiercest battles of the still unfinished campaign to reclaim the epicenter of Iraq’s insurgency were fought. Letters to and from al-Zarqawi were found in the house, alongside a mural containing symbols used by his group, said Maj. David Johnson, a military historian who was present at the discovery.

Hours after soldiers had surveyed the devastated site, a Marine was killed nearby in a clash with insurgents who had apparently sneaked back into the city. A member of the new Iraqi army was also killed, a grim reminder of the tenacity of the insurgency U.S. forces are attempting to crush.

“The town is not quite secure yet,” Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters just outside Fallujah.

The latest deaths brought to 51 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Fallujah since the battle began Nov. 8, Sattler said. At least 425 Americans have been wounded. Eight Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 43 wounded.

Sattler said he wasn’t aware of any civilians killed in the fierce fighting, despite claims by some residents that civilian casualties have been high. Between 25 and 30 civilians have been treated for injuries, and about 1,200 fighters have been killed, he said.

The discovery of the apparent safehouse for al-Zarqawi would confirm something U.S. forces had asserted for many months: that al-Zarqawi was using Fallujah as a base for his campaign of kidnappings, beheadings and car-bombings.

The Jordanian-born militant heads a small but brutally effective network of radical Islamic fundamentalist militants that has lured unknown numbers of volunteers from across the Muslim world to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.

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Recalling the scene encountered by the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, military historian Maj. David Johnson, 39, of Pittsburgh, described a landscape of rotting corpses, feral dogs, clouds of flies, broken sewer lines and other debris from two weeks of American artillery and aerial bombardment.

“That part of town is the most dangerous place on Earth,” said Johnson, who was present at the discovery.

The house contained significant quantities of Chinese- and Jordanian-made ammunition as well as boxloads of medical supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Red Cross, Johnson said.

There were also symbols believed to have been used by the Zarqawi network painted on the wall. CNN showed footage of a mural painted with the words, “Al Qaeda Organization.”

Al-Zarqawi recently pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and changed the name of his organization from “Tawhid and Jihad” to “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Among other things found in the house were messages written on scraps of paper such as: “Go to the flour factory. There is something there for you.” There was also a Ford Explorer bearing Texas license plates and a bicycle.

The house had been the site of a fierce clash Sunday between Marines and black-masked insurgents who ambushed the Marines as they pushed into the city.

About 14 bodies were found nearby, Johnson said, and some of them were carrying foreign identification documents from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan, suggesting they may have been foreign volunteers, he said. None were wearing masks, but masks similar to those worn by the ambushers were “at hand” near the bodies, he said.

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Sattler said he could not confirm that the house was used by al-Zarqawi, and said he did not believe al-Zarqawi was among the bodies found, though all of them will be submitted to tests for intelligence purposes.

“I’m not aware of any particular bodies that we have found from the enemy side,” Sattler said. “There are some that we would certainly like to find, some who said they would fight us to the death… and we would be more than justified in accommodating that.”

Iraqi government officials said earlier this week that they believed al-Zarqawi had already escaped Fallujah, perhaps before the much-publicized offensive began. He is believed to have fled with a prominent Fallujah cleric and insurgency leader, Abdullah Janabi.

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U.S. forces are also battling to contain an eruption of violence elsewhere in the so-called Sunni triangle. In Mosul, insurgents attacked the governor’s office, and car bombs in Baghdad and Kirkuk killed at least four Iraqis.

Also in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said they arrested 104 suspected insurgents in a raid, including nine who fled Fallujah, The Associated Press reported.

But in Haditha, northwest of Fallujah, militants blew up the mayor’s office and the police command center with four explosions, the AP reported. Insurgents distributed leaflets warning that anyone who “wears a police uniform or reports to a police station will be killed.”

Despite the failure to find al-Zarqawi and the continued violence, Sattler said he was confident U.S. forces had “broken the back of the insurgency.”

“We have taken away this safe haven,” he said. “This has disrupted them, I believe, I personally believe, across the country. This is going to make it very hard for them to operate.”



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AP-NY-11-18-04 1951EST



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