Background: The New Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: Aboard the aircraft carrier “Abraham Lincoln” last night, President Bush told its crew and the nation that the major military phase of the Iraq conflict was over.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. (Applause) And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country. In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.
MARGARET WARNER: But the president also made clear much hard work remains before any victory could be considered secure.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. We are pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime, who will be held to account for their crimes. We have begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated. We are helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself, instead of hospitals and schools. And we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people. (Applause) The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave and we will leave behind a free Iraq. (Applause)
MARGARET WARNER: Some 125,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground in Iraq, trying to maintain order and rebuild the country. But skirmishes with hostile Iraqis continue. On Wednesday in Tikrit, U.S. Apache helicopters opened fire on a band of paramilitary fighters trying to steal ammunition. 14 Iraqis were killed. That same day near the town of Kut, U.S. troops shot and killed a man as he tried to run over two marines at a checkpoint. And Fallujah, a Ba’ath Party stronghold about 30 miles west of Baghdad, has seen three days of violence. Yesterday, seven U.S. soldiers were injured when a grenade was thrown into their compound. U.S. soldiers and Iraqis had exchanged fire on two occasions there earlier in the week during civilian protests against the American presence. Local hospital officials said 18 Iraqis were killed. For an on-the-record look for security challenges in Iraq, we turn now to the senior military correspondent for the New York Times, Michael Gordon. He is in Baghdad. Michael, welcome. Who do U.S. forces think are behind these skirmishes that seem to be breaking out almost every day? I mean, do they think these are just local Iraqis impatient with the U.S. presence, or do they see an organized resistance?
MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Well, I think what you have here is a power vacuum. The Saddam Hussein regime has been dislodged, and nothing has taken its place. And in this vacuum, there are a variety of forces here that don’t welcome the American presence. What you have is remnants of the old regime. They’re basically people with no place to go, and they would prefer to see the Americans leave, so they could try to make some kind of comeback. I think you have some Iranian- inspired efforts perhaps, because they also are trying to influence the internal situation here. I think that there may be some just out-and-out terrorists. I think Iraq is going to be a bit of a magnet for al-Qaida- type terrorists who want to attack American forces. And I think there are also ambitious Iraqi politicians who are impatient, don’t necessarily want to wait for a democratic process, and are trying to make their move. And they all have militias, and they don’t always have good control over the militias. So what you have is a very confused situation where American forces face a variety of threats all around them.
MARGARET WARNER: And so how are U.S. forces dealing with those threats and, at the same time, these other duties that they seem to have?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, one thing that’s interesting is they’re developing new rules of engagement for so-called phase four, which is the stabilization phase. But these rules of engagement are going to allow the Americans to carry out offensive operations. So we’re really moving into a phase where the American force is going to be operating in a kind of another world between war and peace. They’re going to be carrying out offensive operations against remnants of the regime. And then they’re going to be doing, you know, peacekeeping- type operations, trying to help the Iraqis rebuild their power supplies and sewage systems, and basically patrolling the streets like policemen and doing joint patrols with Iraqi police. So they’re really having to carry out a variety of different tasks, ranging from combat to peacekeeping simultaneously.
MARGARET WARNER: I notice in your piece today, you said the troops are now being issued some non- lethal weapons.
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, there is… one of the issues which came up this week were the civil disturbances in Fallujah, and the view of the American military is that some of these demonstrations that have occurred there have either been sponsored by these former Ba’athists or at least have tried to take advantage of that. There have been cases where there have been crowds and demonstrations and then people firing at the American forces from behind the crowds. So one thing they’re going to try to do is deal with these types of situations in the future by using standard crowd- control techniques, which means, you know, megaphones, loudspeakers, telling the crowds what to do and also non-lethal kind of techniques like rubber bullet and pepper spray. But it is going to take a little training to get the forces out there ready to use this stuff.
MARGARET WARNER: What does the U.S. presence in some of these towns and cities look like? I mean, was Fallujah typical? We read and saw that, for instance, U.S. soldiers had taken over a school, I gather, in the downtown of the town. Are they very visible? Are they riding on tanks in the towns, are they on the outskirts? How would you describe it?
MICHAEL GORDON: I think the U.S. presence takes different forms in different parts of the country. I think that in Baghdad, for example, you don’t see much of a visible U.S. presence. It’s a big city, four or five million people. And even though there is an entire division that’s safeguarding it, that’s 20,000 folks, most of whom… many of whom, anyway, are logistics and support. And one of the problems here has been that an armored division or a mechanized division… the third infantry division took Baghdad, and they are equipped with tanks and armored personnel carriers, and Bradley fighting vehicles, which are not really very useful in patrolling the streets, which are filled with traffic during the day. So in Baghdad, you often see the troops in sort of static positions. They’re pretty sparse. They’re trying to remedy that, though. They’re bringing in an entire brigade of military police but there will be about 1,000 Humvees here. So they’re changing the character, the force in Baghdad, in a very significant way in the next few weeks, which I think will have an important effect for the Iraqis, who have been complaining about security.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, there is a report in the papers today– your paper and others– that Paul Bremer, a former counterterrorism, State Department person, is coming to Baghdad as a new civilian administrator. What is that going to mean for Jay Garner, the retired general, who has been on the guy on the ground there?
MICHAEL GORDON: And what’s gone on since the war ended has been a bit of a bureaucratic tug of war between the state department and defense department over who is going to shape postwar Iraq. And Jay Garner, retired lieutenant general, represented an organization called ORHA, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was a Pentagon-funded entity. And he came in here with a mandate to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq and rebuilding of its political institution. The State Department seems to have made a move now that major combat operations have been declared over, are trying to get Mr. Bremer in here as the top guy. I don’t think that… I had a brief conversation today with Jay Garner as he was leaving one of Saddam’s palace that is being used as a command center by the military, and I got the impression while he was diplomatic and gracious, even, I got the feeling that he didn’t see himself in a subservient role to Mr. Bremer for very long.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Gordon, thanks again.
MICHAEL GORDON: Thank you.