ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq - The last reliable sighting of Iraq's most wanted man was six months ago, in Haqlaniyah, where townspeople reported that he was preaching in a mosque.
Since then, Islamic and Western Web sites and airwaves have hummed with rumors about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian national who reportedly corresponds with Osama bin Laden and changed the name of his terrorist group from Tawhid and Jihad to al-Qaida in Iraq. Some say he was in a hospital not long ago. The U.S. military says soldiers nearly caught him in February.
And nearly every week news releases from the Iraqi government and U.S. military describe raids on locations where he may be hiding.
Since last fall, al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for almost every major attack in Iraq and several minor ones, though U.S. officials aren't sure he is responsible for all of them. He is believed to have been involved in the beheadings of at least two hostages: Nicholas Berg, a communications engineer from Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Bigley, a British engineer.
Hard facts about al-Zarqawi are scant. For a time, it was said he had only one leg, an assertion since dismissed. Recently released photographs believed to be of the militant leader show a heavier, more clean-cut man than the one who appeared in earlier, grainy pictures.
But while evidence is hard to come by, U.S. officials in Anbar province believe this area in western Iraq may be frequented by al-Zarqawi, either as he shuttles across the porous borders with Jordan and Syria, or hides under the noses of American forces here.
"He can move on the highways. He can move down the river. If you buy that life follows the water, you've got to assume that he does, too," said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, which is responsible for sprawling Anbar province.
Davis' 3,000 Marines patrol 30,000 square miles of the province, an area about the size of South Carolina. "The vast size of this area works a lot of ways to [insurgents'] advantage. Because of the numbers we have, we can't control every inch," Davis said. "Who does the terrain aid? The hunted or the hunter? A lot of times it depends.
"What works for Zarqawi is he's indigenous. There's clearly networks out here that can support him."
While U.S. Special Forces try to learn more about al-Zarqawi, most U.S. troops in Iraq focus instead on the insurgents believed to report to him and mastermind operations carried out in his name.
Nevertheless, with each capture or trove of insurgent information uncovered, U.S. forces say there is a growing sense among them that they are closing in on al-Zarqawi. In recent months, U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed seven members of al-Zarqawi's inner circle, captured 11 of his Iraqi lieutenants and caught two high-ranking foreign fighters with ties to the militant, the U.S. military said Friday.
It is thought that al-Zarqawi moves constantly to avoid capture, said Davis, the Marine commander.
The terrain of western Iraq is another likely factor in his elusiveness, according to military officials.
It is deceptively open country crisscrossed with deep, dry riverbeds and landscapes that in places bring to mind the Grand Canyon. Each ravine is a potential hiding space.
Highways and desert trails cross into Jordan and Syria, where officials believe al-Zarqawi travels more openly, seeking money and fresh foreign fighters.
Once back in Iraq, Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, provides big-city anonymity. And there are many Euphrates River villages like Haqlaniyah - towns so isolated that insurgents can intimidate residents into obedience.
But even if al-Zarqawi is caught, Davis said, "the insurgency will not be over. The insurgency will morph."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.