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U.S. Troops Clash With Insurgents in Baghdad

January 10, 2007 at 4:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, welcome. Could you begin by telling us about today’s military action in Baghdad?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: There’s been a tense kind of stand-off in the Haifa Street area, north of the Green Zone, where yesterday we saw some of the most intense fighting in central Baghdad for the last two years.

A very ominous sign on the eve of President Bush’s announcement of his new war strategy that the Sunni insurgents were able to drive right into the heart of Baghdad and to cause such commotion there that the United States yesterday had to deploy F-18 fighter jets overhead a mere 1,000 yards from the Green Zone.

But today, things seem to have quieted down, that is by the relative standards of yesterday and by the relative standards of Baghdad, which, as you know, is really in the grip of endless and unceasing violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Haven’t American troops fought for Haifa Street before?

JOHN BURNS: They have. It’s the story, in a way, that serves as a kind of metaphor for the problem that President Bush is addressing with his new plan.

American troops have repeatedly cleared areas — that is to say, gone in, gone house to house, and driven out Sunni insurgents, only to leave and find that they come back again.

And in the case of Haifa Street, your more attentive listeners or readers may remember that, two years ago, in a major campaign, the First Cavalry Division, as it then was, retook control of the Haifa Street area. It was a signal success at the time, one of the more important successes of the war, because Haifa Street is an arrow that points right at the heart of the Green Zone.

To have an insurgent stronghold so close to the seat of American military and, if you will, political power here, not to mention the Iraqi government, was a serious thing. So to discover two years on that they’re back having to do it all over again is a pretty serious and disheartening thing for the American military and for the American enterprise here.

Securing Haifa Street

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that this intense fighting comes right on the eve of the president's latest speech on the way forward. Is there a plan to secure Haifa Street in this part of Baghdad in a different way this time?

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the answer to that lies in troops, Iraqi and American troops being able to have a presence there.

Now, in the Haifa Street area, at the time I'm speaking of two years ago, it was controlled by the First Cavalry Division, operating out of a base at the Old Muthenna Airfield, about a mile northwest of the point at which the fighting took place yesterday.

The First Cavalry Division handed over authority in that area to the sixth division of the Iraqi army, one of the better divisions of the Iraqi army. And the Iraqi army has had some success in stabilizing that part of Baghdad.

But in recent weeks, what we've seen is a major push by Shiites, coming out of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, to create a kind of corridor, a kind of cordon sanitaire, if you will, across northern Baghdad, by moving into and driving out Sunnis.

Its significance, without complicating matters too much, to say that a Shiite control of the northern corridor across Baghdad would have fundamental implications if this was to go to civil war, because, of course, that would separate the center of Baghdad and Sunni communities in southwest and western Baghdad from the Sunni heartland to the north.

And what we see is the Shiites making a push, the Sunnis pushing back. And the significance of the new plan, of course, is that President Bush intends to bring in 21,000, 22,000 more American troops, of which we believe 15,000 or 16,000 will be deployed in Baghdad, along with several thousand more Iraqi troops.

And that will give a greater presence, and I think what we need to concentrate on here, whatever the president and his advisers say about Iraqi troops, is the calming and stabilizing effect that the presence of American troops has wherever they go.

Now, it's one thing to say that polls show -- American commanders say it -- that most Iraqis, 80 percent of them, do not like being occupied, true. But if you ask any individual Iraqi in any of these areas whether he would rather see more of American troops, they almost invariably say, "Yes," unless they're members of the Mahdi army or one of the militias, because that's what brings calm to the area.

So I think the great hope is that, with those extra troops, that there may be a greater stabilization effect. And then, who knows? Perhaps the American military command here and the Iraqi government can begin to think bigger thoughts about stabilizing other areas outside Baghdad.

Iraqi opinions on benchmarks

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've discussed the Baghdadi on the street's opinion of having more troops. What's the opinion in Iraq about benchmarks, performance guidelines, demands from the United States that the Iraqis meet certain targets?

JOHN BURNS: Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, doesn't like time lines. He doesn't like benchmarks. He doesn't like being told what to do.

And so the big question that hangs over all of this is: Will Mr. Maliki, with the extra time, the extra political and military space that additional American troops give him, will he step up, to use the White House's phrase, and move on issues like a new oil law that fairly divides Iraq's oil revenues?

Will he step up on a revision of the constitution, which gives a fairer, if you will, shake to the Sunnis? Will he step up on de-Baathification, that's to say, giving a fairer shake to Sunnis who lost their jobs after the overthrow of Saddam because they had been members of the Baath Party? And, finally, will he step up on the issues of militias?

RAY SUAREZ: John, is there a desire on the part of the Iraqi government to avoid the appearance that the Bush plan is being imposed upon them?

JOHN BURNS: Mr. Maliki did not want more American troops. He wanted American troops pulled out of Baghdad to the periphery of the city. He wanted his troops to control the city. He doesn't like much the idea of more American troops embedding, as transition teams or advisers, if you will, with Iraqi military units.

And he very much doesn't like the idea of their embedding down to the level of companies. Why? Because he has made it very clear for some time now that he wants to be -- not only be regarded as, but to actually be able to behave as the sovereign government of Iraq.

He doesn't want American generals standing at his shoulders. He doesn't want American captains radioing in saying, "The Iraqi army is moving here or there to do this or that," which does not conform to what we came here to do.

So there's much in this plan that Mr. Maliki doesn't like. There's much in it that has an effect, whatever they say, being imposed on him. And it's going to be very interesting in the weeks and months ahead to see how that tension plays out here.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns of the New York Times joining us from Baghdad, thank you, John.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you. It's a pleasure.