BAGHDAD, Iraq—Marines in Iraq discovered a series of underground bunkers used by insurgents in western Iraq that show a sophisticated organization with a vast supply of weapons and enough confidence to operate near a major Marine base.
The well-equipped, air-conditioned bunkers, found Thursday, were just 16 miles from the city of Fallujah where hundreds of Marines are stationed. Measuring 558 feet by 902 feet, the underground system of rooms featured four fully furnished living spaces, showers and a kitchen with fresh food—suggesting insurgents had been present recently, according to the U.S. military.
The weapons and high-tech equipment found inside the bunker was impressive: mortars, rockets, machine guns, night-vision goggles, compasses, ski masks and cell phones. Marines also found at least 59 surface-to-air missiles, some 29,000 AK-47 rounds, more than 350 pounds of plastic explosives and an unspecified amount of TNT in a five-mile area around the bunkers.
"There isn't any historical data here detailing whether this is the most elaborate facility ever found in Iraq or even (the) province," Marine spokesperson 1st Lt. Kate S. VandenBossche said via e-mail from a base in nearby Ramadi. "I can tell you that it is the largest underground system discovered in at least the last year."
After retaking Fallujah from insurgents last November, Marine officials called the town the safest place in Iraq. Last month Marines staged two large-scale offensives in the region aimed at rooting out insurgents from their safe haven in Anbar province, thought to be home to the core Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
VandenBossche said the find was another indication of American success in the area.
"A find like this says more about the average Iraqi citizen than the insurgents," she said. "It's their willingness to give us information about insurgent activity in their cities that lead us to these finds."
A tip line in nearby Ramadi went from getting 30 to 40 tips in March and April to 120 last month, VandenBossche said.
But an Islamic mufti, or spiritual leader, living near Fallujah offered a different take: He said the bunkers were proof that the insurgency is unbowed.
"This shows the failure of the Marines. It was close to their base and they could not see it," said the mufti, who formerly sat on the council that directed insurgents in Fallujah. He spoke by phone Saturday evening on the condition of anonymity. "The Americans think they know everything. But when they came to Iraq they thought the people would receive them with flowers. Instead of flowers they found these bunkers."
Haitham al-Dulaimi, who works at a garage in Ramadi, had a similar reaction.
"Are you sure they found it near Fallujah?" he asked, laughing. "It shows you how much the Iraqi resistance has insulted the Americans."
It was not clear who built the bunkers. The entrance to the underground system was discovered by a patrol of Marines and Iraqi army soldiers who were searching a house in the desert when they found a passageway beneath an electric freezer. A rock quarry is adjacent to the site, and the space could be an abandoned mine facility. Former dictator Saddam Hussein also kept underground bunkers throughout the country.
"I honestly don't know what the bunker was used for before insurgents began using it," said VandenBossche, the Marine spokesperson.
The find comes amidst mounting concern in Iraq that the insurgency has reorganized after a lull in violence following national elections in January.
The number of U.S. troops killed by hostile fire in May—67—was the highest since November, when Marines and soldiers stormed Fallujah.
"At times there is not a good reasonable explanation as to why there are more casualties one month versus another," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a top military spokesman in Baghdad. "The enemy gets a vote and unfortunately at times, they get lucky."
There were at least 143 car bombs across Iraq last month, detonated both by suicide bombers and remote devices. More than 700 Iraqis, mostly civilians, have been killed since the nation's interim government took office April 28.
"The U.S. has so far been unable to find an effective way to fight and defeat the various insurgencies—I'd hesitate to characterize them in the singular—that have been raging," said Joost R. Hiltermann, the Amman-based Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank. To shift the tide, he said, there must be more competent Iraqi security forces, a powerful indigenous government and better reconstruction efforts.
"Short of successes on all three fronts, I think we will see a continuation of the insurgencies and, therefore, of casualties among the military," Hiltermann said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special Correspondent Mohammed al-Dulaimy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.