Turmoil in Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined by a Los Angeles Times reporter, Tony Perry, who is embedded with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah. Tony, welcome. Is this the assault that’s been promised by the United States military as part of its ultimatum to insurgent forces in Fallujah?
TONY PERRY: I don’t think this is the final assault. This isn’t the large offensive that is in the offing. But it is an indication that the Marines are defending themselves, and have been throughout this truce, cease-fire, whatever you call it, because they have been attacked daily, almost hourly by the insurgents, and they are allowed to defend themselves. And I think that’s what you’re seeing going on now.
There have been insurgents moving, positioning, getting ready to fire on Marines from all sorts of positions, including the mosques, which has become controversial in the last several days. And Marines are defending themselves. For the Marines, the whole idea of a cease or a truce fire is almost a sarcastic joke. The joke is that those mortars coming in really aren’t being fired; they’re just being turned in one at a time by the insurgents, and that those fellows running down the alley with the AK-47s — they’re really running to turn them in and be peaceful. That’s the kind of joke that the truce has become to the troops.
RAY SUAREZ: Has using fixed-wing aircraft like the AC-130, does that represent an escalation in the firepower being used against insurgents in Fallujah?
TONY PERRY: The AC-130 gunship — the slayer, they call it — has been used throughout, and it’s really, it’s the ace in the hole that the U.S. has here. It patrols at night. It paralyzes the enemy troops, and it really keeps them from maneuvering in large numbers at night, because the AC-130 moves slow. It can linger over a target. It can see everything, and can fire cannonballs, basically. It can chase cars. It can almost chase people; it can see that well. It’s been used from the beginning. It’s the air power that really tips the balance towards the Marines.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned the firing on a mosque becoming controversial. Describe the circumstances that led to it and the extent of the damage to the mosque.
TONY PERRY: Well, the circumstances are that the mosques throughout the city — and there are 100-plus of them — have been used by the insurgents as gathering points, as places to store weapons, as places to rally to, and also in a few cases as places, as places, as vantage points.
These minarets — some of them protruding 100, 150 feet into the sky — dominate, really, this landscape. And one particular minaret 150 feet into the sky was being used by the insurgents to rain down machine gun fire on positions of the Marines 100, 150 yards away, even to hit a Marine headquarters 1,000 yards away. At that point, it ceases to become a protective site under the Geneva Convention. It is a military site, and it was hit. A tank took it out, toppled the minaret to the ground.
It’s a regrettable thing, and the Marines had been warning, warning, warning through leaflets, through public address system announcements, that at some point they would have to fire on that minaret because it was no longer a house of worship, but it was a strategic military site that was trying to murder American troops. And they did. And it’s a very difficult thing and it’s very culturally sensitive, of course. The Marines have tried to avoid it, but at some point you can’t. It’s being used to pin down and try to kill your troops.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you aware of any reaction amongst civilians to that particular attack?
TONY PERRY: Well, I’m sure the reaction is negative because I’m sure the propaganda being put out by the insurgents is that this is proof that the U.S. is trying to destroy Islam. And to a certain degree, the Marines are concerned that they’re being lured into firing on these mosques just so the insurgents can attempt a propaganda victory out of a military defeat — that they can use this to say, “Look, the Americans have come here to destroy our religion,” which of course is not what the Marine Corps says.
They’re here to destroy an insurgency which controls, to a great degree, this city of 250,000 people. It’s only because they are using those sites as military targets that they’re hit. The rule is that a preemptive strike from the military on a mosque or on a minaret has to be approved at the highest level, by the commanding general. But in the heat of battle, when Marines are under fire, it’s the Marines at the site, the battlefield commanders, you know, a lieutenant or a captain, can make the decision that the minaret, the mosque is no longer a protected site; it is a military site and must be hit.
The one that was hit was up on a tall hill with a direct vantage point down on American troops. It dominated the neighborhood, and the Marines, from any — in the midst of a two-hour battle yesterday, they could not wait any longer. They had to protect their troops and a tank brought it down.
RAY SUAREZ: Reports coming back from Fallujah tonight talk about the heavy fire being trained on a neighborhood called Jolan. What’s the significance of that place?
TONY PERRY: Well, Jolan is on the northwest side, northwest corner, really, of Fallujah. It is the neighborhood that there has been heavy fighting on and off for three weeks. The Marines pushed in on April 6 after being attacked at one of the checkpoints on the outskirts. They were attacked. They pushed in. They fought a pitched battle with the insurgents and pushed them back and have taken over several houses. It’s now a ghost town, rubble- and garbage-strewn, and it’s been pretty much shot to pieces in the seesaw, the back and forth. And it’s truly an urban battle the like of which the Marine Corps hasn’t seen in 30 years.
RAY SUAREZ: Tony Perry with the Los Angeles Times is with the United States Marines near Fallujah. Tony, thanks a lot.
TONY PERRY: My pleasure.
RAY SUAREZ: Another place where U.S. forces have recently clashed with Iraqi fighters is near the southern city of Najaf. Iraqis in the holy city of Najaf buried their dead today after fierce fire fights overnight left at least 64 Shiite gunmen dead. The battles took place on the east side of the Euphrates River, across from the city of Najaf. U.S. troops engaged in the fighting to increase pressure on the militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. At a briefing in Baghdad this morning, the general clarified what happened.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: All of the operations have been mischaracterized today as somehow either inside Najaf, just outside Najaf, inside Kufa. In fact all the operations of the last 24 hours have been on the east side of the Euphrates.
Starting yesterday at 1300 when one of our patrols came under small arms attack and after that small arms attack, I believe there was something on the order of seven enemy killed, a number of enemy wounded, no coalition casualties. Last night after 2100, we had at 2112 an M-1 tank on the eastern side of the Euphrates attacked with RPGS and as a result of that engagement and the enemy surrounding that there was somewhere the order of 57 enemy killed in that vicinity, assessed to be the Sadr militia. All of this happened on the far side of the Euphrates, no coalition forces have conducted military operations either inside the Kufa area or inside the main town of Najaf.
RAY SUAREZ: Kimmitt pledged to take back Najaf.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT: Coalition control will return to Najaf. Iraqi security forces will return to Najaf. There will be a time when Najaf, like the rest of this country, is under the direct control of the Iraqi government. When that time comes, there will be a time to decide what happened inside that city when it was not under coalition control.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today I checked in with Newsweek’s Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad. Babak, welcome. As we speak, there’s major military action going on in Fallujah. There was heavy fighting in Najaf last night. Is the United States military holding back on a really major attack on the Shia holy city?
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: It certainly appears that way. The fighting that took place overnight, near Kufa, actually, not too far from the center of Najaf, seems to have kicked off because U.S. troops tried to move into a base that the Spanish troops used to occupy. So it can’t really be seen as an aggressive move to go into the city of Najaf. They were really trying to prevent the Mahdi army, the militia members aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr, from taking over that base and sort of getting any psychological victory. So it didn’t, you know, in reality it doesn’t appear that they are, you know, being the sort of instigators of this. They are trying to hold back.
RAY SUAREZ: Is Najaf sealed off, or are trucks, people, provisions able to move in and out?
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: It does appear that people and provisions are trickling in and out of the city, but the center of the city certainly doesn’t appear normal. You know, on an average day, in particular in the past month, where, you know, there’s been some of the biggest Shiite holidays, normally there are thousands of pilgrims milling about. The bazaars are very, very busy, and pilgrims from as far away as Pakistan, from Iran, from Afghanistan are sort of milling about. And you just don’t see that now. You know, it’s very quiet. The bazaars shut down. Stores are shuttered up. And it’s a very eerie feeling. And I think the residents were anticipating some sort of trouble that seems to have come overnight.
RAY SUAREZ: Even as the American military reports scores of militia fighters killed overnight, are talks continuing with civil and religious leaders in Najaf trying to find another way to end this?
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: It’s hard to say after this latest clash, but I actually spoke to one of the mediators who is involved in this process, a gentleman who has sort of been, who is representing Mr. Sadr in talking to the coalition, and he gave me the impression that, yes, they still would like to pursue the negotiations and to try to calm things down. But one thing that he pointed out was that people from Sadr’s side kept getting agitated by rhetoric coming from the U.S. military, where statements are issued saying that the U.S. military only wants to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr — sort of ignites feelings on that side, and makes them shy away from the discussion table and go more towards getting into battles with the U.S. troops.
RAY SUAREZ: With so much of the attention focused on Najaf and Fallujah, are things relatively calm where you are in Baghdad?
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: They’ve, I suppose, I mean, Baghdad is a very big city. It’s hard to say that things are completely calm. There are definitely security incidents and attacks happening every day in Baghdad. You know, the day before yesterday, or yesterday, there was this incident with a chemical factory that exploded, and there were two people that were, two U.S. troops that were killed.
It’s possible they were members of the Iraq survey group. They had gone in to check out a site. It’s unclear exactly what they were searching out there for — some sort of chemical leads, chemical weapons, something like that. But, you know, life is going on, to some extent, normally. People are, you know, the shops are more open than in places like Najaf, where it’s very quiet. But in general, the security situation even in Baghdad is not great.
RAY SUAREZ: In recent days, criticism of the U.S. military mission in Iraq has come from an unusual source, the current president of the Iraqi governing council. Tell us more about that.
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: Yes, Mr. Massoud Barzani, who is the president for this month, for April, made the statement that the U.S. really made a mistake in allowing themselves this shift in perception, going from an army of liberation to being seen as an army of occupation. And it is significant, because the Kurds have been very closely aligned to the U.S. from the beginning of this military campaign, even before the war, and they fought alongside U.S. troops. So for somebody like Mr. Barzani to actually come out and say that, it really shows that there is this shift in public opinion among the Iraqis, and, you know, maybe this sort of criticism or acknowledgment of mistakes being made coming from an ally is something that the U.S. side should listen to.
RAY SUAREZ: Newsweek’s Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad, thanks for being with us.
BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH: Thanks for having me on.