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Update: On the Ground in Iraq

June 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Ivan Watson in Baghdad, welcome. What is operation peninsula strike?

IVAN WATSON: Ray, this began late Sunday night and it involved more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers. They were backed up by warplanes, apache helicopters, patrol boats on the Tigris River, all moving into this town called Duluiyah– which is basically on a peninsula on the Tigris River– sweeping in during house-to-house searches. They say that they had intelligence, the American forces, that there were some of the top most wanted Iraqi officials, that some of them were in this town. In addition to this, they say that there had been frequent attacks on American military convoys in the surrounding area, and this prompted them to make this move on this town that had previously not had a permanent American military ground force.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been some weeks since the president declared active hostilities over, but what you’re describing sounds like combat.

IVAN WATSON: There definitely has been an escalation of these kind of ambush attacks going against American forces on the ground, particularly here in central Iraq in the so- called Sunni belt where the Arab Sunnis, this ethnic and religious minority that benefited most from Saddam Hussein’s regime, where they live. The attacks have been coming daily, nightly, and they have been lethal. There was a soldier killed in Baghdad on Tuesday by a rocket-propelled grenade — on Monday on the border between Syria and Iraq in another ambush. These attacks have been lethal and they’ve been increasingly sophisticated, according to the U.S. Military.

There was an attack over the weekend in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, a soft target… so-called soft target was hit. This was one of the liaison offices between the U.S. Military and the public. So the security there is softer than at some other American military installations. The place was ambushed at night. The attackers, they hit two separate sites on the same street within minutes of each other, and actually managed to hit the third story of this liaison office at least five times with rocket-propelled grenades. That’s a sign that these are not just angry youths or people just lashing out; these are trained professionals. These are military professionals who are conducting carefully coordinated attacks against American forces.

RAY SUAREZ: So military sources in Iraq are telling you that these are sophisticated and coordinated. Are they working on the basis of any theories on who is behind it all?

IVAN WATSON: Since the main bulk of the hostilities ended, the U.S. military has said that they’ve been hunting for remnants of Saddam’s Fedayeen militia, for Ba’ath Party loyalists, and what we’re really seeing in recent weeks for sure– and I’ve seen with my own eyes- – some of the after effects, some of the damage from some of these attacks.

In the city of Samara, there were reports of mortar attacks against one of these military public liaison offices. To conduct a mortar attack, that takes much more than just firing a Kalashnikov rifle or even a rocket- propelled grenade. You need ballistics training, you have to understand trajectories. So we definitely have some skilled people who are conducting these ambushes, and they have been succeeding to some degree.

And this latest operation, Peninsula Strike, as well as another reported move coming out from U.S. Central Command today against what’s being described as a terrorist training camp. In addition to this, the heavily reinforcing of the western town of Fallujah, which has been a daily hot spot for U.S. Forces — this is a sign that the U.S. forces are trying to regain the initiative here in the central Sunni belt of Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the Iraqi attacks and the American counterstrikes putting civilian populations at added risk as well?

IVAN WATSON: The danger is of creating even more resentment within this Sunni belt of Iraq where people are already not very comfortable with a foreign army occupying their country. And now they’re being subjected to house-to-house searches, to foreign troops walking into their homes. In many cases, they’re complaining about the U.S. forces being very rough with them, of not respecting their local traditions, not respecting their religion, in addition to arresting them and carting them off to detention centers with no warning, and then holding them indefinitely, periods of three weeks or more.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this also a big distraction from the American administration’s work of trying to get these cities back into some normal working order?

IVAN WATSON: Absolutely. The U.S. Civil Administration here is facing the enormous challenge of trying to bring life back to normal here in Iraq. It has been very slow starting — a lot of frustration from the population here, from people who said they were very excited to see American soldiers in the first day after Saddam Hussein fled the capital. So you have these security considerations on top of this, where even people who are involved in waste disposal have to organize military escorts everywhere they go just to travel to the landfill to inspect whether or not garbage is actually being hauled out of the capital. So these factors are definitely an impediment to trying to bring any life back to normal.

And again, when the U.S. Military cracks down, they are a foreign occupying force, and they are viewed increasingly that way by the people living in these communities. So the resentment is building. It seems like a vicious cycle, and I’m not sure if the American troops here can break it.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Ivan Watson in Baghdad, thanks for being with us.

IVAN WATSON: Thank you, Ray.