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Struggle for Control in Iraq

May 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Dexter Filkins, welcome. What’s behind this stepped up American offensive we’re seeing in Karbala and Najaf? I mean, why now?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, the Americans are running out of time, really. I mean, it’s just a couple of months and they have got to hand over the keys to this place to an Iraqi government. In places like Najaf and Karbala, there really isn’t an Iraqi government right now. So I think what they are trying to do is just deal with this thing now so that they have got some time before June 30 to kind of get everything in order.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we read today in wire reports that there really wasn’t any resistance when the U.S. Troops took the mayor’s office I guess in Najaf. How much resistance is there from al-Sadr’s militia in these two cities?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, they are holed up in these two cities, but for the most part– and they’re also in a third city called Kufa– but I think for the most part they’re kind of clustered in the center. And the Americans didn’t get a lot of resistance today either in Karbala or in Najaf when they moved in. But just up the road a bit, in Kufa, there was a big fire fight. The Americans claim that they killed 41 Mehdi army insurgents. But there’s still some fighters in those cities. They just… you know, they’ll choose to fight undoubtedly at a later date or else they’ll melt away.

MARGARET WARNER: And how intense is the U.S. Offensive? Can we say compare it to the earlier assaults on Fallujah last month?

DEXTER FILKINS: These… nothing like it. These are very measured moves into these two cities. And I think what the Americans are hoping is that the Iraqis notice that distinction and that they appreciate the subtlety with which they are trying to work.

I think, today, for example, the governor’s house, the governor’s office, which they took, it’s on the northern end of the city. It’s a mile and a half or two miles north of the middle of the city. It’s like a few hundred yards away from the Spanish base that the Americans had taken over just a couple weeks ago. So they didn’t have to go very far to get the governor’s office today. And again, I think they are not going in with all their guns blazing, and they are hoping that the Iraqis will appreciate that. It’s a pretty risky game, though.

MARGARET WARNER: And then tell us what the moderate Shiite clerics are up to. We read about a meeting they held earlier this week.

DEXTER FILKINS: There was a meeting on Tuesday. It was a very important meeting of some of the biggest and moderate mainstream Shiite leaders in the country. And when they came out of that meeting, they denounced Muqtada al-Sadr and asked him… demanded that he get out of these two cities and to take his army with him.

Hours after that, literally, the American offensive began. And I think you have to infer from that that the Americans took that as something of a… something of a green light. I think the risky part of this is that at the end of that meeting, they not only… the Shiites not only asked Muqtada al-Sadr to leave, but they, at the same time, warned the Americans against going into both of those cities, so again, very tricky business here.

MARGARET WARNER: And where is al-Sadr now, and how he is reacted to this stepped up pressure?

DEXTER FILKINS: It’s not clear where he is. That’s a good question. Some people think he’s in Karbala, others in Kufa, others in Najaf. I believe he lives in Najaf. But he is around. He has sent out, you know, these kind of feelers, these peace feelers, as he did yesterday, saying, you know, we can have a cease-fire if you agree with to withdraw.

So I think what the Americans are banking on here is that the Mahdi Army will kind of melt away as it’s already done in a lot of cities like in al Kut and Diwaniyah, where the uprising took place last month. And then as the Americans came in to go after these guys, they kind of disappeared. And I think honestly what the Americans are hoping is that that same thing happens here.

MARGARET WARNER: But what is their desired end game in terms of dealing with al-Sadr himself?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, that’s the real… that’s the big question and that’s the real… I think that’s the real risky game. The Americans say that they want to kill or capture him. I mean, they said… I was talking to an American officer who said that today. But I think, you know, honestly, they don’t want to make a martyr out of him.

I think they know that. And my guess is that they would probably settle for taking him into custody or just having him really even run away. I’m not sure of the latter, but I think they are very sensitive to the fact that if they killed him, they might make him a lot more popular than he is now.

MARGARET WARNER: Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview a couple of days ago something about, well, ultimately, you know, the Iraqis or the Shiites will have to deal with al-Sadr. Is there, from American officials you talk to, is there any feeling on their part that somehow maybe they will take care of al-Sadr in some fashion?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, our understanding is that Muqtada al-Sadr is not very popular. Certainly not very popular among the mainstream Shiite political leaders and the mainstream religious leaders, but he’s not even apparently very popular among the ordinary Iraqis in Najaf and in Karbala. And today, when the Americans appointed this new governor to go into Najaf, Paul Bremer, the American, and the new Iraqi governor appealed to the Iraqi people and said, look, we need your help on this. It’s time to step forward.

You know, it’s… I think you may see some of that happening in Najaf and Karbala, but you know, Rumsfeld and other people have described Muqtada as kind of a thug, which he probably is, but his following is pretty large. And it’s not by any means a majority of this country, but it’s not just a small gang of people, either. I mean, he’s… if you go into Sadr City, which is named after his father, that’s a big slum in Baghdad and he has a lot of support there.

MARGARET WARNER: Dexter Filkins thanks so much.