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GWEN IFILL: Fierce fighting spread across Iraq today, as U.S. troops battled insurgents from north to south. The uprising was led by both Sunnis and Shiites, involving the cities of Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf, Karbala, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad, Hawijah, Baqouba and Kut. Some of the most intense fighting was in Fallujah, a hotbed for insurgent activity and a Sunni Muslim stronghold. U.S. Marines there launched an all-out assault on the city and fired rockets and dropped a bomb onto a mosque compound after coming under heavy fire from insurgents inside. Eyewitnesses said as many as 40 Iraqis were killed, but hospital accounts put the number near 60.
In Ramadi, the U.S. military confirmed 12 Marines were killed yesterday, and forces continued to fend off insurgents today, including some Syrian mercenaries. The al-Mahdi Army, loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was responsible for much of the violence outside Fallujah and Ramadi. In Baghdad’s main Shiite neighborhood, Sadr city, supporters vowed to bring an end to the U.S. occupation.
MAN (Translated): Today we declare war openly on the American troops. This should be their last day in Iraq. Either they should withdraw or perish here. We are willing to sacrifice our lives.
GWEN IFILL: Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the violence incited by al-Sadr’s militia would come to an end.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: We will conduct offensive operations. We will attack to destroy that al-Mahdi Army. Those offensive operations will precise and they will be powerful, and they will succeed.
GWEN IFILL: And he called for al-Sadr to give himself up.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: If Mr. Al-Sadr wants to reduce the violence and calm things down, he can do that. He can turn himself in to a local Iraqi police station and he can face justice.
GWEN IFILL: Al-Sadr today released a statement threatening more violence. It said: “I call upon the American people to stand beside their brethren, the Iraqi people, who are suffering an injustice by your rulers and the occupying army, to help them in the transfer of power to honest Iraqis. Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers.”
More now from the scene in and around Fallujah. Joining us is Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times. He is embedded with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah. Tony, welcome.
We here in the States think of Fallujah or any town that’s not Baghdad as being pretty pastoral, out in the middle of nowhere. But there are a quarter million people in Fallujah. How do the Marines or how does the military go about executing this crackdown we have been hearing about?
TONY PERRY: Well, 2,500 combat Marines moved in Sunday night and surrounded the city, cut off all entrances and exits. Nobody’s getting in or out of this city unless the Marines approve. And then they essentially invited the insurgents to come out and fight. The insurgents took the bait and we now are having daytime skirmishes between platoon-sized squads of insurgents and the Marines.
This is exactly what the Marines wanted to happen and it is happening. The insurgents are showing grit. They’re showing they have a lot of weaponry and they’re also using some strategy, paramilitary strategy, but they are fighting back. They’re using blockades, ambushes. They had anti-aircraft equipment the other night. But, as far as the Marines are concerned, this is the insurgents playing the Marines’ game. In a toe-to-toe slugfest, the insurgents really don’t have much of a chance. And that’s exactly what the Marines are counting on.
Fighting has been going on all day here in multiple spots. There have been probably dozens of insurgents killed. Marine casualties have been very low so far. A lot of use of tanks, a lot of use of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — a lot of fighting in and near mosques.
GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you to elaborate on that? We did hear today about an attack on a mosque that killed anywhere from 40 to 60 people. Were you with that unit and can you describe what happened?
TONY PERRY: Yeah, I’m with the unit right now. The first reports are a little misleading. What happened here … there are several mosques that have been used by the insurgents as places to either gather or strategize or even to fire at Marines.
One particular mosque had 30 to 40 insurgents in it. They had snipers. They wounded five Marines. There were ambulances that drove up and the marines let them come in to take the insurgent wounded away. But instead, people with RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, jumped out of the ambulances and started fighting with the Marines. Ultimately, what the Marines did is call in air power. A helicopter dropped a hellfire missile and then an F-16 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the outside of the mosque, put a huge crater outside the mosque. There’s sort of a plaza outside the mosque. And suddenly, the firing inside stopped. But when the Marines examined the mosque and went in and went door-to-door in the mosque and floor-to-floor, they found no bodies, nor did they find the kind of blood and guts one would presume if people had died.
Now, one of two things must have happened: Either the people died inside and were carted off somehow — and there is a tradition of the insurgents carting off their dead very quickly; or two, frankly, they escaped before the bomb was dropped. We cannot confirm that anybody actually died in that mosque. The Marines were quite willing to kill everybody in the mosque because they were insurgents. They had been firing at people, at Marines. And as the lieutenant colonel who ordered the strikes said, this was no longer a house of worship, this was a military target.
GWEN IFILL: Well, you raise an interesting point, which is our understanding has always been that mosques were kind of an off-off-off-target. We weren’t supposed to be targeting them, but, for some reason, General Kimmitt, I think, was quoted as saying this was a military necessity to act. What was the necessity? Did they think that the people who, for instance, conducted the mutilations and the attacks on the four contractors last week were inside this mosque?
TONY PERRY: No, I don’t know that those suspects were inside but the insurgents were inside and they were using the high vantage point that a mosque provide with sniper fire and they wounded five Marines and killed one.
You’re right, though, mosques are off-limits. The rules are that a move against a mosque has to be approved by the commanding general, Maj. Gen. James Mattis. It cannot be done on the ground by a platoon leader, even a commander. They hold it very close at the commanding general’s level. In fact, you can’t even use an abandoned mosque as a headquarters or anything. They’re roped off and Marines are told to stay away from them. But when they become military targets, when they’re threats to Marines, then all bets are off. And when they were sure, as they were in this case, that there were no worshipers inside, these were strictly fighters who were engaged in very bitter urban-style combat with the Marines.
The Marines here say this is urban combat at its most intense. And the lieutenant colonel who ordered up the strike — Brennan Byrne of the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment Marines– said that this reminds him a lot of Wei City in South Vietnam, where the Marines fought the famous urban battle as part of the Tet Offensive. When a mosque becomes a military target and there are no worshipers involved, it is then a building; it is not a place of worship.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about urban warfare, we also think of door-to-door searches and activity. Have you seen any of that going on?
TONY PERRY: That has gone on. There is a lot of door-to-door. So far, they’re not in the heavily densely populated areas. A lot of it is industrial or sort of rundown residential, where there really are not a lot of people. But they’re going door-to-door, they’re going rooftop-to-rooftop, because in a lot of places the insurgents are using the rooftops to shoot down either RPGs, rocket propelled grenades, or small arms fire. Or they’re using that kind of location to mortar.
They were mortaring, the insurgents who were mortaring a number of Marine positions today. They didn’t inflict casualties on the Marines, but they landed mortars on the top of an Iraqi house, killing a 7-year-old girl and injuring severely a 3-year-old girl. So the insurgents are fighting in and around residences and industrial areas. That means there’s a lot of kicking in doors of industrial areas. There’s a lot going around corners. It’s a very slow, painstaking, dangerous kind of warfare.
GWEN IFILL: Tony Perry, stay safe. Thank you very much.
TONY PERRY: My pleasure.