TOPICS > Nation

Turmoil in Iraq

April 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Melinda Liu, thanks for joining us. Give us the latest if you will on the situation in Iraq, and particularly in Baghdad where you are now.

MELINDA LIU: The big news in Baghdad was a rather unusual incident, which remains a little bit mysterious, I’ve got to say, right now. A number of U.S. military personnel were trying to conduct a search of what turns out to be a chemical factory, and a huge explosion took place as they were searching it.

It was quite a deadly incident. Two soldiers were killed, and a number wounded. And what makes it rather unusual is that it’s the first time that we’ve heard of a search for chemical weapons being involved in this recent outbreak of violence. Members of the Iraqi survey group, who were basically the WMD hunters after the war, were in the search party, and it turns out that this factory was suspected of selling chemical agents to insurgents and terrorists and, you know, producing a number of chemical munitions, which can be as innocuous as smoke grenades or tear gas to things much more ominous like sarin.

There was no indication that more serious nerve agents were involved here. It wasn’t a huge, you know, kind of chemical, full chem-suit type operation, but still it brought home that even if we think we’ve seen just about everything happen in the past three weeks here, there are still new things that keep cropping up.

TERENCE SMITH: And the explosion itself, was that sabotage or a reaction to the search?

MELINDA LIU: It’s not clear at the moment whether it was a booby trap, in other words rigged to blow up as people were searching it, or whether there was something in the search that triggered this explosion. Obviously, there were explosive materials around; this was a chemical factory. It could have been, you know, somebody breaking into something or knocking over something in the course of the search that might have ignited some very flammable materials. It was a very powerful explosion, though.

TERENCE SMITH: Broadening it out beyond Baghdad itself, what is the latest situation in Fallujah? Is the cease-fire there a cease-fire in any meaningful sense of the word?

MELINDA LIU: The cease-fire was trouble from the very beginning. It was very fragile, even in the best of circumstances. I think right now you could say it exists in a political sense only. There has been fierce fighting in Fallujah for hours and hours of firefights the marines have been involved in and at least one Marine killed and a number wounded. And what’s happening is that even as the U.S. forces are trying to transition into a softer option there, apparently a decision was made not to contemplate, at least for today and tomorrow, a kind of full, in-your-face military offensive.

The insurgents are sort of pressing their advantage on the warpath seeking to engage wherever they can. Now, the U.S. side is still pretty much committed to trying what they call joint patrols — U.S. and Iraqi security patrols in the city — beginning as soon as tomorrow, Tuesday, which is also the deadline for a weapons turn-in program by the insurgents. Now if it works, then it could be the beginning of a gradual process of stabilization. If it doesn’t work, you’re going to see a lot of patrols being targeted by insurgents’ gunfire, and it could be even more active tomorrow than it was today.

TERENCE SMITH: And in the holy city of Najaf, we have some reports of heavy explosions there tonight, and of course there was something of an ultimatum given by the U.S. authorities to the militia there to begin to turn in their weapons. What’s the latest there?

MELINDA LIU: Najaf is another very worrisome situation, because it appears that the anti-coalition, Shiite militiamen are stockpiling weapons. It appears that part of the reason for the recent lull is perhaps that they had expended a lot of their ammunition in a series of sort of local uprisings that took place early April. And so now they’re seeking to resupply, they seem to be buying weapons.

On the arms market, the price of weapons has gone up, and the coalition has reported that they’re hiding these things in civilian facilities, like schools, mosques, and so forth. Of course, this is a nightmare for the coalition, because if they’re seen to be attacking these facilities, even if they do have weapons in them, it could be, you know, it can make for some very emotional kinds of images. So they would like to try to assert more control in the city of Najaf.

To do that, however, they have to get closer. They want to avoid the so-called holy sites, including shrines and things like that, but they have already taken over a military base as the Spanish, who are withdrawing their troops, were preparing to let go, to abandon. So there’s a sort of perception of tightening the noose in Najaf, even as they seek to avoid the most troublesome areas. But again, any movement like this is likely to increase the possibility of skirmishes, firefights, and other sorts of attacks. It’s nighttime now. There are lots of explosions that could also be mortar attacks on various U.S. divisions fighting the insurgents.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Melinda Liu, thank you are for bringing us up to date.

MELINDA LIU: My pleasure.