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March 18, 2005
Notes from the Pentagon

Zarqawi escape
A U.S. intelligence official disclosed new details on the near capture of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq, last month.

Iraqi and U.S. forces nearly caught the al Qaeda terrorist during a raid on a vehicle traveling in western Baghdad on Feb. 20.

By either luck or treachery, Zarqawi avoided capture, but two of his key aides Abu Qutaybah and Zarqawi's driver were captured. Intelligence officials were baffled that Zarqawi was not inside the vehicle that was stopped.

"We thought for sure he was in the vehicle," the official told us. "The intelligence was that good."

After the raid, officials reviewed the overhead video provided by a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle used in the operation. After closely studying the video, a man was seen leaping out of the back of a van and rolling to the side of the road shortly before the vehicle was stopped. Officials think the man was Zarqawi.

The identification of his vehicle is considered a major breakthrough and has buoyed hopes that his capture will happen soon.

Iranians in Iraq
U.S. intelligence officials tell us Iran has dispatched to Iraq about 200 intelligence officers and members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Iranians are not simply spying for Tehran. Intelligence from Iraq also indicates they are supplying information to the insurgents on the Iraqi government and on the United States and coalition forces.

The Iranian intelligence personnel are part of Tehran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which has a long history of supporting international terrorism, specifically the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists. The IRGC operatives are part of the notorious Qods force, which has been used to train foreign terrorists and to export Iran's version of Islamic extremism.

The collaboration between the insurgents and the Iranians has created new concerns for military and civilians in the Pentagon and Iraq who are working to stabilize the country.

War chant
Think back to 2002, when the Bush administration was secretly planning war against Iraq. Officials started using buzz phrases to signal a tough attitude toward Saddam Hussein.

One such phrase was "sooner rather than later."

Asked on CNN in September 2002 about when Congress should approve a resolution authorizing force against Iraq, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice answered, "The president thinks it's better to do this sooner rather than later."

Fast-forward to this winter, as President Bush tells Iran it must not develop nuclear weapons.

Asked on CBS on Sunday about negotiations with Iran, Miss Rice said, "Everybody understands that there has to be a permanent arrangement in which the Iranians forego the means by which to develop nuclear weapons, and that needs to happen sooner rather than later."

Andrews returns
Robert Andrews, a mystery novelist and one of Washington's best known national security figures, is back at the Pentagon.

He took the oath Wednesday as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in the office of special operations and low-intensity conflict (SO/LIC).

He had held the post when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. After serving a year forging policy in the war on Islamic terrorism, he resigned to resume a writing career.

Mr. Andrews is well-practiced in Washington; he was an Army Green Beret, a CIA analyst, a Senate aide and a defense industry executive.

He is a strong supporter of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's "lean forward" approach to killing or capturing terrorists. Mr. Andrews penned several op-ed columns defending the secretary in the wake of criticism over Iraq.

Mr. Andrews will work for Tom O'Connell, a former special operations soldier who is assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC. Mr. Andrews tells us it is the first time SO/LIC's top two civilians have special operations experience.

Pantano update
Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, yesterday introduced a sense of Congress resolution urging the Marine Corps to drop murder charges against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano.

Mr. Jones said he plans to confer with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, about getting the resolution to the House floor for a vote this spring.

Lt. Pantano says he acted in self-defense in April when he fatally shot two Iraqi insurgents who fled the scene of a bomb-making factory in the notorious Triangle of Death in Iraq. He says the men, who turned out to be unarmed, moved toward him despite commands in Arabic to stop.

The Marine Corps accuses him of executing the two.

Mr. Jones, whose district includes Lt. Pantano's home base of Camp Lejeune, is siding with the lieutenant. He has written to President Bush, appeared on talk radio and plans to stir up House support for his pro-Pantano resolution.

"The ongoing war in Iraq has taken a toll on this nation," Mr. Jones wrote to Mr. Bush. "Families have been torn apart by the loss of a loved one who has paid the ultimate price in service to our country. Charging Lt. Pantano with murder is not only wrong, but is also detrimental to morale in America. This sends a potentially flawed message to those considering enlisting in our military. Furthermore, we need to consider what this does to embolden the enemy who can now better rely on an overly cautious soldier or Marine second-guessing his actions.

"Mr. President, I hope you will personally evaluate 2nd Lt. Pantano's circumstances and take into account the ramifications of this decision. This nation needs good Marines like Ilario Pantano. Charging him with murder creates an unnecessary risk of losing other future leaders like Lt. Pantano. I would greatly appreciate your personal investigation into this very serious matter."

Mr. Jones, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, hopes the people he makes aware of the case will call members of Congress during the Easter break, which in turn will prompt more lawmakers to sponsor the resolution.

He told the president, "It is my strong belief that Lt. Pantano was serving in the interests of the United States when he engaged the enemy and sought to pre-empt their actions through any means necessary."

The resolution reads in part, "2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, United States Marine Corps, was defending the cause of freedom, democracy and liberty in his actions of April 15, 2004, that resulted in the deaths of two suspected Iraqi insurgents and that subsequently have given rise to certain charges against him; and the United States government should dismiss all charges against 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano arising from the actions."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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