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Fighting in Fallujah

April 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: On Fallujah, a short time ago, Margaret Warner spoke to Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He’s embedded with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah.

MARGARET WARNER: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, welcome. Tell us what you’ve observed today in Fallujah. To what degree are the Marines pulling back and this new Iraqi force going in?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there’s been a fair degree of movement on the part of the U.S. Marine forces in and around Fallujah. I’m restricted from talking about specific troop movement, but suffice it to say there’s been an awful lot of activity on the roads leading out of Fallujah, people standing out there have observed, and I myself have observed, a large number of Marine convoys, Humvees, large troop transport trucks coming out of the city heading toward Marine bases.

Outside the city, so we’re talking the bases that are sort of outside — three, five miles away from the city, so outside the positions that the Marines used to hold inside the city, and further beyond a perimeter that they had been holding around the city to prevent insurgents from coming or going. This afternoon, as I drove down the main highway along one side of Fallujah, I noticed that just in a position a day ago where there were Marine amphibious assault vehicles and several Marines essentially guarding one flank of the city, those Marines had gone, and in other places in the city I noticed a similar checkpoint and positions being vacated.

Now all this was being done to enable members of this new Iraqi militia that’s being called the Fallujah Brigade, enable members of that unit to start taking up these positions. This group has been sanctioned by the top Marine commander in Iraq. It’s nice to put an Iraqi-led unit into Fallujah to have them confront the insurgents who are there and restore a semblance of stability to the town, and the hope is that this group, which is led by a former Iraqi army general who hails from the Fallujah area, will be able to do what the Marines haven’t been able to accomplish thus far in the city, and that is to calm it down.

MARGARET WARNER: Rajiv, wires are describing this General Saleh, who’s head of this new force, as a former member of the Republican Guard: one, is that true, and to what degree have he and the other former Iraqi soldiers joining this group been vetted by the Marines?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the exact vetting procedures aren’t known to us and it’s unclear just how much vetting others in this organization have received. It appears that Saleh has been looked at quite carefully by the Marines. There have been discussions with him for the past several days, if not longer. He’s believed to have been a member of the Baath Party but not at a very high rank, seems to be more of a career military man.

He served in the Republican Guard unit. That’s the most elite army unit, but had also served as a division commander in the old Iraqi army. Perhaps the bigger question is — his subordinates, who are those people and the actual sort of foot soldiers, where are they coming from. What we’re hearing is that a number of those people will be from Fallujah; some of them might even be people who have been people fighting against the Americans over the past several weeks. The hope is to turn some of them around now, get them to be fighting for this U.S.-led coalition here, but it’s hard to tell because many of these people haven’t yet been selected. This is still a group and a work in progress.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now explain to us what is going to be the relationship between them and the Marines. General Kimmitt, at a briefing in Baghdad, said today they would be under the Marine control of the command but then General Saleh was quoted by one of the wires as saying, well, he’s creating this new emergency military force and that they were going to go in and do the job without an American force which he said the people of Fallujah had rejected. I mean, how much control do the Marines really have over this force?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think they will retain overall control. General Saleh will be reporting to General James Connolly, the head Marine commander in Iraq, but at a lower level, it’s not going to be a relationship whereby Marines and members of this new force are patrolling side by side, at least not initially, and it’s not going to be a situation where certain actions will have to be or even the smallest of actions will have to be vetted by Marine commanders on the ground.

It looks like this new force is going to have an awful lot of autonomy to go out and do what it sees fit to bring the situation under control so long as this doesn’t go too far off the reservation. So there will be a degree of a sort of overall oversight, but the idea that they will be sort of working hand in glove with Marines does not appear to be the case at this point from my vantage point on the ground here.

MARGARET WARNER: Rajiv, thanks so much.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Pleasure talking to you.