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Escalating Violence in Iraq

April 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey, welcome. There are reports of fighting in so many parts of the country today, both Sunni and Shiite, and today the top general in Iraq said there were signs of what he called “linkage” between the two. Have you seen evidence of that?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I have. I have seen it on a couple different levels. Today, I was at some Sunni mosques where they were gathering food supplies to help people in Sunni areas that are under siege by the U.S. Marines.

What was really interesting, though, was that there were truckloads of food shipments coming from Shiite neighborhoods. And you had the Shias who have never been in a Sunni mosque before driving these trucks in, full of food supplies, also bringing donated blood, and they were there to help the Sunnis in these besieged areas.

Many of the Shias had said we never really worked that closely with Sunnis before, but now we’re part of the same resistance. We have the same enemy, and it’s time we join our forces.

There’s also been some cooperation on the military level according to some people that I interviewed where fighters from Shiite militias are trying to get into some of the Sunni areas to help the Sunni insurgents battle the American forces.

Up until now there has been sort of isolated fighting on one front with the Sunnis and on the other front with the Shias, and now it seems like there’s an effort among some of the commanders to combine their forces to be stronger.

MARGARET WARNER: So you were in a Sunni mosque in Baghdad but stuff was coming in from the Shia neighborhood to send on to Fallujah where the Sunnis are battling the marines?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: That’s exactly right. What is interesting is the background. Under Saddam Hussein and even before him, Iraqi leaders had tried to sew divisions between Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites make up the majority of people in Iraq , however Sunnis had always been the educated class and the ones that were sort of born to rule.

Saddam had done a very good job of keeping the groups apart and making them rivals. And when American commanders took over in Iraq, they thought that one of the biggest risks to stability in the country was the two groups battling each other.

Now American commanders, the same ones that said that a year ago are saying, “well, we’re seeing these two groups actually working together against us.”

MARGARET WARNER: Now tell us about the fighting going on in Baghdad itself, we just saw some footage of a fuel truck, for example, being blown up, we were told, in or around Baghdad . How much fighting is there?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: There’s an increasing amount of fighting. I actually went out and saw the fuel truck. I was on my way to the mosque, a Sunni mosque, to do the story about Shiites helping with the Sunnis. We saw the huge cloud of smoke on the horizon.

By the time we got out there we realized the fuel truck had been set on fire or attacked with RPG or some type of explosive. There were these black clouds of smoke boiling up from the highway. What was really scary, though, was when we got out of the car, I was with a photographer to take a picture of the burning truck. Within minutes, the whole neighborhood around the truck was flooded with insurgents with masks over there faces and rifles in their hands, and they were shooting in the air. They were stopping cars. They were swarming the burning truck.

But what was scary was this was about twenty or thirty minutes outside of central Baghdad . It was not in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. It was not in some far flung region of the country. And, to me, it sort of showed the violence is getting closer and closer to the center of things and the sense of order is dissolving. And there’s this sense that Baghdad may fall to anarchy if things like this keep up.

MARGARET WARNER: Now this fuel truck, was this part of an American military convoy or what were the circumstances?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: The circumstances were the fuel truck– it appeared to me the fuel truck was like the caboose of an American convoy. There was about twenty or thirty trucks lined up on the highway. They were civilian trucks but they were carrying military supplies, some generators, some tires, there were a couple of fuel trucks in the mix, some other things, and it looked like the trucks at the end had been attacked but for some reason the convoy then stopped on the highway presenting itself as a light target for these insurgents.

So when we showed up, it must have been minutes after the fire started because of convoy just stopped. That was when the insurgents popped out again with their machine guns and were running through the streets. And we saw an American Humvee go back toward them, and that’s when we got out of there because it was just getting too dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: One other question about what is going on in Fallujah. You said they were taking in humanitarian supplies. What can you tell us about the situation inside Fallujah where the fighting is so intense?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It sounds really bad. We have not been able to get inside the city because it’s too dangerous for us to go there. But we do have some contacts we reach by phone that are in the city right now, and they said that the marines had cut electricity and the water supplies to the city — that it was too dangerous to go outside to get through, that shipments of food were being blocked from entering the city, and that it was so dangerous to move outside because of all the fighting between the insurgents and marines that many bodies had been left on the streets and nobody was collecting them.

It sounds like a really bleak picture coming out of Fallujah. The marines say the fighting is continuing and they are going to stay there until they root out the insurgents. There have even been some mosques that have been bombed and taken over by American forces. So it looks pretty bad in Fallujah, and it’s not quite clear when it’s going to end.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, in Kufa one of the cities I know you have been down in that southern part where the Shiites hold more control. There are reports that some of the vehicles they are using are the same vehicles that the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi military, the newly trained Iraqi police force. Did you see evidence of that, that the material the U.S. has provided is now being used by the other side?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, I saw exactly that. I went down there three days ago right after Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia had taken over the town. What was strange was this sort of complete power vacuum where all the Iraqi security forces and American forces had vacated the town. But then while they were there, we saw the police cars driving around, and when we looked more closely, we realized that it was the black-clad militia men that belonged to this army working for Mr. Sadr who was driving around in the police cars.

So not only had they taken over the government offices and many of the sort of military installations, but they were actually using the same equipment that the Americans had provided to the Iraqi security forces. And it showed that all the work that sort of — that the American government has done here to build up the Iraqi security forces in a place like this, it just didn’t really matter. They weren’t strong enough to combat this militia, and they just gave up and everything that they had with them.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you again, and take good care of yourself.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thanks a lot, Margaret, bye-bye.