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Fighting in Iraq

April 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The Arabic language satellite news service, Al Jazeera, is reporting two hostages killed. The channel showed pictures of two westerners shot at close range near their vehicle. It’s still unclear whether the pair are missing American or German civilian contractors. We discuss that and other developments in Iraq with John Burns of The New York Times. We spoke to him earlier by phone from Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: We’ve reported that it appears that the cease-fire has held around Fallujah for another day. In other places around the country where U.S. forces have had to fight in recent days, has it also been quiet?

JOHN BURNS: Yeah, I think there’s been a very substantial improvement in the last 24 hours. It’s visible here in Baghdad. We hear it reported from the South, we hear it reported from the North, we hear it reported in limited ways from the area around Fallujah.

I think the generals and the American civil administrators here are breathing a great deal easier tonight, as well, I might say, as the population of Baghdad, among whom we move. They seem to be a great deal more relieved tonight than they were even as late as Sunday night.

RAY SUAREZ: Speaking to reporters by satellite back at the Pentagon, Generals Abizaid and Sanchez referred to the mission as being to capture or kill Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has aroused new attacks against the United States. Does this represent an upping the ante in the search for al-Sadr? Is this the first time they’ve said that publicly?

JOHN BURNS: You know, I think what we’re seeing here, Ray, is what Teddy Roosevelt called talk softly and carry a big stick. General Abizaid and General Sanchez have a big stick outside Najaf, where we now know Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric, to be hunkered down. They’re building American forces up there, they say loudly that they are prepared to go after him.

What’s really happening is that a group of Shiite clerics and some secular Shiites, people of considerable influence, including one who represents Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful religious figure among Iraqi Shias, have met this evening — that is to say, Monday evening — with Muqtada al-Sadr at his headquarters in Najaf, and they are trying to work out a formula which will head off this confrontation. What that formula will be is not clear, and it’s not at all sure that that delegation has authority from the United States to negotiate anything at all.

But General Abizaid said, if you listen carefully to him, that what he thought might happen would be what he called a uniquely Iraqi solution achieved under the pressure of U.S. guns; that is to say of U.S. forces outside Najaf. So I think that what’s happening is that Muqtada al-Sadr has realized he’s outgunned, he’s in effect surrounded, that he could be destroyed and killed in all of this, and he’s suing for some sort of exit from this situation, one presumably that will not result in his immediate arrest.

RAY SUAREZ: The Mahdi militias that profess their loyalty to al-Sadr did turn over police stations in other areas of civil control to Iraqi forces, ending today in the major cities where they were in control. What has that effectively meant in cities like Kut and Najaf?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think we’ve got two different situations a little bit. This insurrection, as you know, spread all the way from the Sadr City, the Shiite slums in northeastern Baghdad, all the way across central and southern Iraq, across six or seven cities of considerable importance. American forces were dispatched hastily to those cities and took direct military action in a number of them. They have now restored effective civil control, American control, in several of them. What they have not done is go into the key two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the crux of this is of course Najaf, which is where Muqtada al-Sadr is.

But as you say, the first sign of a break in the situation came this morning, when several people handed over the police stations to the Iraqi police; this is the American-trained, American-paid Iraqi police. That was the first time, if you will, somebody had blinked in this confrontation, and now we know there’s a negotiation going on.

And I should mention that one of the people in the delegation which met with al-Sadr tonight was the son of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which means that he has directly engaged his prestige in this, and is probably the single most encouraging development in this entire sorry mess.

RAY SUAREZ: As groups of kidnapped hostages are reported to be released by some forces in some places, reports continue to come in of new fresh hostages being taken in other places. What can you tell us?

JOHN BURNS: Yes, well, there’s no doubt that whatever solution is reached in the Najaf area, if indeed a solution is reached, that the American forces are facing an anarchic situation in the area between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, that is to say immediately to the west of Baghdad on the highway that leads 375 miles across the desert to Jordan. This has always been a difficult area. And all of those kidnappings have occurred in the area around Abu Ghraib.

The name may be familiar to your viewers as synonymous with the worst of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, the center of his gulag, where he had 50,000 or more prisoners, most of whom were released on a single day in the fall of 2002. The significance of that is that he released a lot of serious criminals, and many of them remained in the Abu Ghraib area, and U.S. military commanders are telling us that there’s been a kind of fusion of the Saddamist resistance with these criminals, and this kidnapping may be as much a result of criminal activity as anything else.

It’s very threatening. They have executed one or two people, as we know, but they are releasing people, even as they take more, and it’s difficult to see how that process is going to be stopped until the United States forces gain control of the entire area, and that’s going to take some time.

RAY SUAREZ: But what does that tell you about the level of coordination? Are these freelancers, just separate gangs taking people when the opportunity arises?

JOHN BURNS: You know, we had one of our correspondents seized in that area last week, a photographer and some of our Iraqi staff. And his account, as well as the account of some other journalists who have been through this process and come out happily unharmed, is exactly that of a kind of motley crew, ill sorted, no clear chain of command, no very clear purpose. If there was a clear purpose you’d have to say these people would not have been released as they have been.

So it’s anarchy and all the more threatening because these people, as I know, having been seized last week myself by a group of militiamen, Sadr’s militiamen, they have their fingers on the trigger, and the mood of the group quickly defaults to the mood of the angriest man amongst them and it’s a very frightening experience.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, on the line from Baghdad, thanks for being with us.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, Ray.