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JIM LEHRER: Today’s fighting in Fallujah. Terence Smith talked by phone this evening to Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post. He has been embedded with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah for the past two weeks.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, welcome to the broadcast. Can you tell us where you are and what you see, and what you have been able to learn today from your vantage point?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, Terry, I’m at a Marine forward-operating base in the city of Fallujah. We’re on the eastern side of the city, but well within the city limits, and one that affords me a fairly good vantage point for the activity that has been occurring here in Fallujah.
And today has been a fairly intense day of fighting around this city. There has been fighting on three separate fronts in Fallujah; the first in the northwest part of the city, in the Jolan neighborhood. This was where on Tuesday evening an AC-130 gunship striated two pickup trucks carrying in surgeons and weapons setting off some dramatic explosions, footage of which was beamed all around the world. Well, today, the attacks continued, I see from my vantage point here, to Marine cobra attack helicopters flying low, striking at targets, as well as U.S. fighter jets bombing some targets there. You can see the plumes of dark, black smoke coming from there.
But what was interesting about today was that there were two other fronts, essentially, opened up here. After receiving fire from insurgents from the southern part of the city, Marines there called in air strikes, and fighter jets dropped as many as ten precision-guided bombs at targets on the southern flank. And on the eastern part of the city, fairly close to where we were, some additional bombs were dropped in response to hostile fire that was received by other Marine units there. Even though we are technically in a cease-fire, that means that the Marines aren’t pushing into the city, they aren’t engaging in offensive operations, they are responding when the insurgents fire at them. Sometimes that response comes in the form of sniper rounds or counter-mortar attacks. But today, as we saw with the awesome power of large U.S. bombs dropped from fighters that can also include fairly punishing air strikes.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any way to estimate or know either the U.S. casualties or the Iraqi casualties from a day of fighting like today?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: There have been no reports of U.S. casualties, although those reports oftentimes lag behind the actual fighting. So it might take us a day or so to find out any incidents of Americans who were injured or killed in today’s fighting. It’s much tougher to ascertain Iraqi casualties. Fallujah is still too dangerous for western reporters to operate inside of.
So, we have no way of sort of checking in at these sites that have been bombed. And there are no sort of accurate counts that generally sort of trickle out of the city. At some point, when journalists can once again move in the city, we’ll probably have a much better sense of the impact these past several weeks of fighting have had on the city.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv, are the Marines still hoping to launch these joint patrols with Iraqi security forces that we’ve heard about?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, they are, Terry. But this evening here, Marine commanders announced that they would not start the patrols as they had hoped for on Thursday. And there will be at least a 24-hour delay. No reason was given for this, but it might be safe to assume that all of the fighting in the city today has left the environment fairly tense and hot, if you will. And Marine commanders may be hoping for the situation to cool a little bit before they enter the city with these joint patrols. There’s also some concern that the Iraqi police officers and civil defense troopers, who will be accompanying Marines on these patrols, still don’t have the adequate level of training to confront well-armed insurgents. And so this delay will allow the Marines an extra day of training.
TERENCE SMITH: And these joint patrols, are they to go in and try to locate insurgents, are they to go from block to block? It certainly sounds like very perilous duty.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, that’s the eventual goal. The preliminary goal is more — just to have a show of force and to show the people of Fallujah that the police are back patrolling the streets, they’re being backed up by the Marines, that the Marines are ready to reenter the city.
Now, there is an expectation on the part of Marine officers that these patrols will come under fire. They really have little doubt about that. They’re hoping that they will be able to, you know, push through that fire and continue on with the patrols. And this is not your standard sort of patrol. The Marines will be coming in with a full component of backup firepower. I can’t talk about some of their plans for security reasons, but it’s a fairly impressive array of military equipment that they’re going to have at their disposal because they anticipate a confrontation.
Now, these initial patrols, Terry, will be a decidedly one-sided affair. I mean, the Marines are going to dictate the patrol route. They’ll be in command. The hope is that eventually the Iraqi civil defense troopers and the policemen will be able to do some of this stuff on their own and confront these insurgents, fight with them, apprehend them. But that’s — based on the initial assessments of their skills — seems like it might be a long way off.
TERENCE SMITH: Amidst all this fighting, are there still negotiations going on with parties within the city? Is there still — are the Marines still willing to give that some time?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there still are discussions on a number of tracks. As I understand it, there are several different groups of Iraqis that are trying to negotiate. You have local leaders, you have national political leaders, you have religious leaders, tribal leaders, all of whom are trying to craft some sort of solution. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to: Do these people have influence over the insurgents? As yet, that has not been demonstrated. The local leaders who agreed to the terms of the cease-fire on April 19, with the Marines, have thus far been unable to compel the insurgents to hand over any heavy weaponry, which was a condition of this cease-fire agreement. And so there is a deep skepticism on the part of some U.S. officials that a deal will work, that the people who are negotiating will be able to deliver on their promises.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much for talking with us.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure to talk to you, too.