Continuing Turmoil in Iraq
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JIM LEHRER: The Iraq story. We begin with a report from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.
JULIAN MANYON: The sounds of gunfire crashed and echoed as Shiite militiamen fought Spanish coalition troops 200 miles south of Baghdad. This was the town of Diwaniya this morning as Spanish soldiers battled to regain control of the Shiites loyal to the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized kill buildings and ran riot. After several hours, the Spaniards withdrew having failed to secure the town.
British troops seemed to have been more successful. Today they were patrolling the empty streets of Amara after 48 hours of clashes which cost the lives of 15 Iraqis. Six British soldiers were likely hurt. In other parts of Shiite southern Iraq fighting continued; 11 Italian troops were hurt and one Ukrainian soldier died. In Baghdad today, another American soldier was killed in a rocket grenade attack. American armor rumbled through the streets of Shiite districts as the coalition struggled to reassert its authority.
CAPT. JEFF MERCIOWSKI, U.S. Army: Right now we’re here because last night we were engaged from around that mosque. We took casualties. We’ve done numerous community improvement projects in this area and right now we’re trying to find out why we were being shot at last night.
JULIAN MANYON: All around was evidence of the fighting. And some Shiite families were mourning their dead, a sight which promises further revenge attacks.
UMM OMAR (Through interpreter): Why did they do this to us? What did we do? If I had a weapon I would fight them.
JULIAN MANYON: Muqtada al-Sadr has now issued a statement through one of his aides. It says that the uprising will continue unless the coalition withdrawals it troops from Iraq’s town and cities.
QAYS AL-KHAZALI (Through interpreter): The uprising will continue until our demands are met. If U.S. forces continue this escalation against the Iraqi people, the uprising will spread until it reaches Kurdistan in the North.
JULIAN MANYON: U.S. troops have now launched a major operation in the Sunni town of Fallujah where four U.S. contractors were butchered last week. The Americans are determined to punish the people who did it. But local militants say they will fight to the death.
JIM LEHRER: And after that report was filed the Pentagon announced up to 12 marines were killed in the fighting in Ramadi.
Terence Smith has more on Iraq. He talked earlier this evening with Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad.
TERENCE SMITH: Alissa Rubin, thanks for joining us. Can you give us a sense of the state of play in Iraq today from Baghdad to the other cities?
ALISSA RUBIN: Yes, some sense. I think what we saw today was scattered violence across the South, an area that, until the last few days, had been relatively calm with only very, very sporadic violence. This is– really what we’re seeing is elements of a Shiite sort of religious militant uprising that is taking– gathering force and sort of taking shape in different southern cities: Najaf, Amara, Nasiriyah. We’ve seen some protest in Basra, but there was no real violence today.
It’s hard to see how this down scales at all. It feels as if it’s building up toward something, but it’s hard to know exactly what that is. In Baghdad, there have been some outbursts. There were outbursts over last night in one of the Sunni neighborhoods.
There also, just yesterday, there were several more outbursts in Shiite neighborhoods, confrontations with coalition troops and between coalition troops and the followers of the… Muqtada al- Sadr, a young Shiite cleric who is violently anti-American.
TERENCE SMITH: And you, Alissa, you were in Najaf today. What was the situation there?
ALISSA RUBIN: Al-Sadr has taken over, in large measure, the city of Najaf. It’s significant because Najaf is not just another city in Iraq. It’s one of the two most holy cities in Iraq and in Shiite Islam. It also receives pilgrims from all over the Shiite world. And it is the seat of the most distinguished and scholarly clerics and their sort of institutions of learning. So it’s a very, very important city, symbolic of sort of the whole intellectual framework of Shiite Islam. And so to–
TERENCE SMITH: When you say al-Sadr has taken it over, you mean military control of the entire city?
ALISSA RUBIN: Well, quite close to that. He moved personally from the shrine where he had been staying in Kufa, which is right near by, about seven to ten miles away, to Najaf last night. And his Mahdi Army, which is a militia of sort of black- uniformed, armed men are surrounding– posted all around the shrine in Najaf, to the very holy place.
They’ve entered and taken control of a number of the police stations. They’ve– according to the police, they’ve stolen the bulletproof vests that the police got from the Americans. They’ve stolen the cars, guns. So they are now posted in most of the police departments there, at some of the hospitals. They have established checkpoints in different places around the city. For all intents and purposes, they are the power on the ground right now.
TERENCE SMITH: And was there any opposition to all of that from coalition forces today?
ALISSA RUBIN: No, there was none in Najaf. Any operation in Najaf would have to be very, very carefully planned, and it would not be easy. There’s been a promise by the coalition not to storm into the holy sites. It’s an agreement with the clerics and with the city elders there, and also in Karbala, that the coalition troops would keep their distance and allow the policing to be done by Iraqis. Now, what happens when the Iraqis are not able to police because they’ve been essentially defanged by the militia of al-Sadr’s remains to be seen. I think that’s something that will unfold in the next few days.
TERENCE SMITH: And it sounds as though that would make it even more difficult for coalition forces to go in and capture al-Sadr as they have said they would like to do.
ALISSA RUBIN: It’s extraordinarily difficult. The dilemma facing the coalition is that they want, I think, probably with some good reason, to bring al-Sadr under control. But to do so… the only way to do so is with force. And that would mean possibly bloodshed in a holy place– bloodshed by people certainly perceived as infidels by Muslims here, and with the… an enormously fraught venture from a sort of public relations standpoint. But beyond public relations, it could rally people further against the coalition and kind of create… creating a backlash. So however it’s done, it has to be very carefully considered.
TERENCE SMITH: Earlier, Alissa, you mentioned the senior Shiite cleric there, the Ayatollah Sistani. Is he playing any role in any of this?
ALISSA RUBIN: Well, I think his role has been very much in the background. He is not — probably doesn’t feel terribly safe right now with al-Sadr occupying the shrine that’s about a block from his office, and he has been quite silent. He has urged to refrain from bloodshed. He’s urged to keep an atmosphere of calm, but he’s also said that al-Sadr’s demands are reasonable, and therefore he shouldn’t need to resort to bloodshed. So it’s… he’s treading a very difficult line, attempting not to alienate al-Sadr but at the same time, not to approve of his more violent approach to confronting the coalition.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, obviously it remains a very tense and unresolved situation. Alissa Rubin of the L. A. Times, thanks very much for filling us in.
ALISSA RUBIN: Thank you.