SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ — For six weeks, the US military pounded Fallujah in an effort to crush the core of Iraq's insurgency - and kill or capture its putative leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But two top Kurdish intelligence officers say that even before the campaign destroyed that base, insurgents were scattering, evolving into dozens of small cells determined - and empowered - to disrupt security ahead of the country's national elections Jan. 30, with or without Mr. Zarqawi.
The two, who have interrogated dozens of insurgents, say that to catch Zarqawi and his followers, the United States and Iraqi militaries will have to launch a much broader counterinsurgency campaign than the one in Fallujah. "The important thing is to do something beyond one or two concentrated operations," says Dana Ahmed Majid, head of security for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "It has to be something broader, with its own special program and focus. It needs to work on economic, political, social, and ideological fronts."
Zarqawi is important, but more as a symbol and ideological guide than as a direct commander.
In Iraq, Zarqawi is like Zorro - a wily master of escape - to many Iraqis, and a frustrating symbol of their own impotence to others. Most Iraqis swear that he does not exist, and was invented by the Americans to justify their bombing campaigns.
Those who know better - two top security and intelligence officials - say he is just as likely to be spending time in and around Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul, as in Fallujah.
The two top officials are Mr. Majid, and Sadi Ahmed Pire, the head of security for the PUK's Mosul office. According to them, Zarqawi is traveling frequently around the region, slipping in and out of the country as he chooses.
"Who says Zarqawi was ever in Fallujah," says Majid, smiling enigmatically. "He's a person who can move around any number of Iraqi areas. He can change his appearance. He can change his papers. He can move around freely. Zarqawi is a single man, and it's always extremely difficult to capture a single person."
The insurgent groups compose themselves in very small cells of two or three people. "Each cell has an "emir," - a word that usually means a cleric, but in this case denotes a leader. The emir is the one with the decisionmaking powers who gives orders for bombing or attacks. Most of the groups communicate by Internet. "Telephone communications in Iraq are difficult," says Majid, "but the Internet is everywhere."
One of the insurgency's main strongholds is the triangle just south of Mosul, in northern Iraq.
Historically a key crossroad on the ancient Silk Road, Mosul today is where the different strains of Iraq's insurgency come together: Veteran Afghan-era jihadis meet new recruits from places like Chechnya and Yemen, and hardcore Islamic militants meet Baath Party cadres.
Mosul was relatively stable until April and May of 2004, when former top Baath Party officials held a summit in the Syrian town of Al Hasaka. At that meeting, according to intelligence sources, the party reorganized itself, expelling anyone who had flirted with the US, international aid groups, or the Iraqi Governing Council.
By some estimates, they kicked out half the membership, paring it down to a trusted core of diehard party cadres, headed by Saddam Hussein's family members and former high-ranking Baath officials.
Mosul was the natural meeting place for the newly resurgent Baath Party. The former headquarters of the Iraqi Army Fifth Corps, it was still full of former solders and officers.
According to intelligence sources, the new leaders are Mohammed Younis al-Ahmad, a former top aide to Hussein, and Ibrahim Sabawi, Hussein's half-brother and former security director. The US is offering a $1 million reward for information leading to Mr. Al-Ahmad.
Because Mosul was taken over without any fighting in the original US invasion in 2003, the Baath Party structure was preserved intact. After the war, insurgents were able to meld with the old Baath institutions. "The insurgents are using the infrastructure of the old Iraqi army," says Mr. Pire. "They used the forests for training and hiding themselves, on both sides of the Tigris.... They have a good base of support inside Mosul."
When asked if Zarqawi was ever in Mosul, Pire laughs. "Zarqawi exists?" he says, raising his eyebrows teasingly. Then he becomes serious. "He's in the Qaim area - even, sometimes, Hatra, or Biaj," he says, naming several Iraqi cities south of Mosul. "And he is in Mosul sometimes."
When asked why he doesn't capture Zarqawi in or around Mosul, Pire says there is one key reason: Because insurgent networks have such good intelligence that Zarqawi or his followers, would hear about any such plan beforehand.
"The point of strength of the terrorist is information," he says. "They have exact information. They have people in every office, every department - police, Iraqi National Guard, Health Ministry, education, electricity, and municipality. And the people cooperate with them - sometimes willingly, sometimes not."