U.S. Mililtary Strike Targets Northern Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong, welcome. It’s being called one of the largest airborne assaults in Iraq in three years. What’s the objective of today’s military strike in central Iraq?
EDWARD WONG, The New York Times: Well, the military says that what they’re trying to do is clear out some insurgent hideouts northeast of Samarra. We spoke with an Iraqi military official in that area, and he said that the strikes seemed to be targeting three villages and the rural land around those villages. The military says that it has already found some piles of weapons. These include artillery shells, bomb-making devices, and even some military uniforms in some of these locations.
RAY SUAREZ: Can you describe, to the extent that you know, the mix of forces used and what that part of the country is like, the terrain and such?
EDWARD WONG: Well, from what we hear, this area that they’re concentrating on is a rural area. It’s not Samarra itself. It’s near Samarra. As you know, Samarra was the site of the shrine bombing last month that then led to an explosion of sectarian violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
That whole area has been very volatile. The Americans have never been able to control it, not since they toppled Saddam Hussein. There have been lots of very violent tribes in that area, people staunchly opposed to the American presence, people staunchly opposed to the ascent of a Shiite-run government here.
And, so, the Americans have constantly had to do sweeps throughout the area. And even after they have done a big operation, the insurgents will regroup quickly. What happens is, the insurgents often flee from these areas before the Americans come in.
RAY SUAREZ: Did the Iraqi forces take a big role in this operation?
EDWARD WONG: Well, the Americans say that there were Iraqi forces involved. The operations — it’s unclear, without being there, exactly what kind of role the Iraqi forces play. Sometimes, the American military has advertised Iraqi forces as being in the lead in some of these operations, when, in fact, when you’re on the ground with them, what you usually see happening are the Iraqi forces just clearing out some buildings after the Americans have already gone through the area.
Of course, all the — if — if it is an air assault, that clearly doesn’t involve Iraqi forces at the core of it, since all the aircraft are American aircraft. The Iraqi air force is only a very nascent creation at this point. An American lieutenant colonel told me that most of the aircraft involved here were helicopters, Black Hawks, Chinooks, and Apaches.
RAY SUAREZ: This is, as you say, one of the more volatile parts of the so-called Sunni Triangle. With the Sunnis still trying to negotiate a place in government, was it an odd juxtaposition of events to try to open the parliament today, while making a strike at the Sunni heartland?
EDWARD WONG: Not necessarily. The Americans have been doing operations throughout various Sunni-dominated areas, whether it’s Anbar Province or Salah ad-Din Province. They have even done operations like that right before elections. So, it — it doesn’t necessarily alienate — alienate the Sunni politicians who are negotiating.
Generally, what we have heard from a lot of the Sunni Party leaders is a lot of animosity towards Shiite-led operations from the Shiite government, commandos from the Interior Ministry, people being rounded up in Sunni areas by policemen. If that happens, then, you do hear a lot of animosity from the Sunni leaders.
RAY SUAREZ: Today was the opening session of the recently elected Iraqi parliament. Was there much of a sense of an — of occasion, a sense that they had, just by convening, accomplished something major?
EDWARD WONG: There was a bit of that. There was also a very somber mood. A lot of leaders who took the podium basically acknowledged that Iraq was a very precarious situation right now, that it had edged close to civil war last month, that sectarian tensions were high, and that a national unity government needed to be formed quickly in order to dissolve some of those tensions.
So, they did say there have been some accomplishments over the last year. They basically acknowledged that elections — the elections have been a good thing. Obviously, they, themselves, were put into power by these elections, but they also said that there was a lot of work ahead and that Iraq had many enemies, all of them watching and hoping that the state will fail.
RAY SUAREZ: Was there any worry about convening a parliament in the midst of what have been some very dangerous days in and around Baghdad?
EDWARD WONG: It has been very dangerous in different parts of Baghdad. But, at the same time, there has been a lot of pressure on the Iraqi leaders to get the parliament going. The constitution basically set certain deadlines. Once the parliament sits down and meets, then there’s only certain weeks — or certain months by which the president or the prime minister has to be appointed, and then a Cabinet formed. Now, the Iraqi leaders won’t necessarily adhere to those deadlines.
They have missed many deadlines during the political process. But it’s at least a structure that will — that they might feel obligated to follow. So, there has been a lot of pressure, I think from both the Iraqi public. There’s a sense in the street that people want the parliament to sit as quickly as possible, and then also a lot of pressure from the American ambassador here and from the Bush administration.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about a timetable that they might try to accomplish. With the clock running, how many days do they have to seat a government?
EDWARD WONG: Well, basically, the most important step now will be to — they will negotiate. They will try and reach a package deal, where they will have a president, a prime minister, a Cabinet. It’s, you know, all in a very — it’s all a moving process right now, and it’s unclear how quickly they will get each of these components done. But the next stage is, they’re supposed to have 30 days, basically, to appoint the president, to have the president sit.
RAY SUAREZ: If the people who are interested in not having this government succeed sort of run out the clock and no government is seated, is there a parliamentary process that then kicks into place? What happens if they can’t come to a settlement?
EDWARD WONG: Well, there’s supposed to be a repeating cycle, by which — if the prime minister and the Cabinet are not approved, then, the president is supposed to look for another prime minister, a nominee, basically, and then — who will then try and appoint another set of ministers, and then there will be another vote in parliament on that. So, it’s sort of like a repetition cycle, if the first stab doesn’t happen — if the first stab — stab doesn’t succeed.
RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong of The New York Times, joining us from Baghdad, thanks a lot.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks.