Turmoil: Inside Iraq
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: The violence that killed eight American soldiers and wounded more than three dozen yesterday, began with Shiite protests in several Iraqi cities. The protests turned particularly violent in the holy city of Najaf and in Baghdad. The fiercest fighting was in Baghdad’s largest Shiite neighborhood, known as Sadr City. It was there that the eight American soldiers were killed. Overall, about 50 Iraqis were killed and some 170 others wounded.
The demonstrations throughout the country were spearheaded by militant followers of a 31-year-old radical Islamic cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Yesterday’s clashes followed protests last week over the coalition’s decision to shut down al Sadr’s newspaper, and the Saturday arrest of a top al-Sadr aide for alleged involvement in the murder of a rival cleric last year. Today, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, declared al-Sadr an outlaw.
L. PAUL BREMER: He is effectively attempting to establish his authority in place of the legitimate authority of the Iraqi government and the coalition. And as I said yesterday, we will not tolerate this. We will reassert the law and order which the Iraqi people expect of the coalition and the Iraqi forces.
MARGARET WARNER: Coalition authorities also disclosed today that an Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr several months ago in connection with the rival cleric’s murder. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the violence incited by al-Sadr’s militia, the al-Mahdi army, and other militias would not be tolerated.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: Militias are inconsistent with a democratic and sovereign nation with a central government. And we will take action, as and when necessary, to maintain a safe and secure environment in Iraq. Individuals who create violence, who incite violence, who execute violence against persons inside of Iraq will be hunted down and captured or killed. It is that simple.
MARGARET WARNER: Despite a show of force by coalition troops, new Shiite protests led by members of al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi militia erupted today in several Iraqi cities.
And for the latest developments inside Iraq, we’re joined from Baghdad by Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times. Jeffrey, welcome. I gather you’ve been in a lot of these hot spots today. Give us a feeling for what it’s like on the ground.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Sure. Today I went to two places. I went to Fallujah in western Iraq, where right now the Marines are dealing with an insurgency by Sunni Muslims. There was this horrible incident last week, where four people were killed, four American civilians were killed in the center of Fallujah, and their bodies were dragged through the streets. And today, the Marines began to surround the city and plan a siege to find the people who were responsible for this attack, and try to restore some order in Fallujah. I did that today.
And I also went to a city called Kufa in the South, which has been racked by violence where militiamen loyal to a Shia cleric have taken over the town, kicked off the Iraqi police, and established their own occupation-free zone in the area where there’s no coalition or occupation authorities, no Iraqi police, only these members of this militia who wear all black, carry machine guns and sort of rule the town as it is right now.
MARGARET WARNER: And are they very much in evidence?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, they are. They’re all over the place. I mean, what’s going on is this one cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, is in a mosque right now, and he’s refusing to come out. The coalition authorities have issued an arrest warrant for him because they say he’s been behind this recent upsurgence in violence, and also that he had played a part in an assassination attempt on an assassination last year. So his followers have surrounded his mosque. They have a lot of guns, RPGs, which are rocket-propelled grenades, and they say that they’re preparing for a siege by American forces when they come to take this cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little more about yesterday. I mean, was al-Sadr able to just give the word and suddenly all these protests erupted in all these different cities?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yesterday was really scary. It was the first time since I’ve been here– I’ve been here about three months — that there were really signs that things were slipping out of control. The day began with massive demonstration in many cities across Iraq, in Baghdad, in Najaf, Basra and a few other places. And they were organized by this cleric, al-Sadr, who is protesting two things, basically. One is the Americans shut down his newspaper last week. He publishes a weekly newspaper, the American authorities had accused it of printing lies that incited violence, and so they took action last week and closed the newspaper. That began the series of protests starting last week, that sort of built to through this past week. The second event was the arrest of one of al-Sadr’s aides, who supposedly was linked to an assassination of a rival cleric last year.
So there was a lot of energy in the street. This cleric, al-Sadr, was calling for his followers to protest these two things. Meanwhile, many of them are armed. And as the day went on yesterday, things got out of control. It started with stones being tossed in a few places, then there were gunshots, and then just sort of all-out mayhem erupted both here in Baghdad and in a few other places.
MARGARET WARNER: How seriously have the U.S. forces and U.S. officials that you’ve talked to taken al-Sadr up till now, in terms of whether he has a big enough following, how powerful this militia of his is?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think the U.S. authorities have been watching him, as evidenced by shutting down his newspaper last week. They said that was a very difficult decision because they anticipated that it would provoke many of his followers to demonstrate in the streets, but they were very worried that if he continued to print this newspaper that contained lies according to the coalition. One example was that al-Sadr had accused the coalition of planning a suicide bombing or an attack against the police station that everybody else here in Iraq had basically thought was a suicide bombing. But they thought that if the paper continued it could really cause a problem.
So they had been watching him, but I think more of the focus been on another Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, who is a much older man, he lives in Najaf, he issues these religious decrees. And Sistani was playing a much more active role in the governance of Iraq. So while there was a lot of focus on Sistani, Sadr was able to sort of create a following, build a militia, and yesterday we saw the results of that.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do coalition officials say about, or how do they explain the fact that this arrest warrant apparently, which was disclosed today was issued for him months ago, but they’ve never arrested him?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: You know, they really didn’t address that question. It came up, but there was no clear answer why if the arrest warrant had been issued month ago it was just coming out today, one day after al-Sadr had provoked what proved to be the greatest insurrection since occupation began.
MARGARET WARNER: And U.S. officials — and we’ve run some of this tape — had some very tough talk about how they plan to crack down on these militias, they’re not going to tolerate them. Anybody who is involved will be put out of business, and so on. What is their plan, really, for cracking down on all of these?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It’s really not clear. And like my visit to Kufa today showed, it’s going to be a serious challenge. I mean, the town of Kufa, it’s a small town along the banks of the Euphrates River, it’s actually quite pretty, the river runs right through it, there are these palm trees lining each side, and there’s this beautiful mosque in the middle. That’s where al-Sadr is holed up right now. But he has the place so surrounded with his followers, who are so loyal to him, and almost fanatical. You see them marching through the streets with these huge posters of al-Sadr, chanting his name. They all say that they’ll die for him, and they’ve really dug in. So to uproot a militia like that, it’s going to be mayhem.
And there’s a lot of people in Kufa today that I talked to that are sort of dreading what may happen if the U.S. troops come down there, or any troops come down there to try to take him out because they’re so entrenched right now and the support for him is so loyal right there, that it’s hard to imagine how this is going to be resolved without some serious fighting.
MARGARET WARNER: And do U.S. officials or coalition officials you talked to say they think they’ve got enough troops to handle all of this?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, that’s one of those questions that keeps coming up, and we keep getting the same answer. And that is yes, we do have enough troops to handle this. But part of that explanation was based on reassurances given by American authorities that the Iraqi police forces and security forces were ready to take on some of the day-to-day security.
But what was really frightening about yesterday was that the Iraqi forces just collapsed, and Sadr City, where there was serious fighting going on, the Iraqi police fled and the Americans had to come in and battle these forces loyal to Sadr to get them out of the police stations they seized.
In Kufa, there wasn’t even a battle. As soon as the armed militia arrived at the doorsteps of the police station, the police left. So that seems to raise the question of how ready are the Iraqis right now to provide for their own security if there is a hand-over and the American forces play more of a secondary role.
MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks so much.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.