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Three U.S. Soldiers Killed in Baghdad Rocket Attack

April 28, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Three U.S. soldiers were killed in a Baghdad rocket attack Monday, following a weekend in which U.S. forces killed 45 Shiite militia fighters during fierce battles in the Iraqi capital. New York Times reporter Michael Gordon updates the story from Baghdad.
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MARGARET WARNER: Michael Gordon, thank you for joining us. It’s been about a month since U.S. and Iraqi forces began this push into Sadr City. And in the last 24 hours, more rocket attacks and mortar rained down on the Green Zone.

Why is it proving so difficult to get a handle on this situation for the U.S. and Iraqi forces?

MICHAEL GORDON, New York Times: Well, first of all, Sadr City is a very large sector of Baghdad.

You’re talking about a region that has more than two million people who are packed together in some rather dense neighborhoods of alley ways and side streets. So it’s a large area, maybe comparable to like a borough in New York City.

And American and Iraqi forces have moved into the southern part of Sadr City, the southern districts of that area, but they haven’t really advanced north of that. And they’ve had some success in suppressing the rocket fire in the areas they’re in.

But in terms of the rest of the city, that really depends on helicopters and reconnaissance and Predator drones. And they don’t function very well during a sandstorm.

Divide and conquer

MARGARET WARNER: Which I gather was today. What is the U.S. and Iraqi army objective here?

MICHAEL GORDON: What they've sought to do is really a twofold objective. First off, they're building a wall that will cut across Sadr City and it will really divide the bottom quarter of Sadr City from the rest of the area. And the idea is to create a safe zone in this southern sector.

And for the Americans, of course, the goal is to help suppress the rocket firings on the Green Zone. And many of the rocket firings had come from this southern area that the U.S. hopes to control. And the idea is, by moving into these areas, they can stop the rockets being fired from that region.

And also they're trying to help the Iraqi government establish sovereignty over this part of Sadr City, because, really, currently it's a bit of a no-man's land and certainly the northern part of Sadr City is under militia control, so that's really the two-fold goal.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say under militia control, who's really in charge in Sadr City? I mean, is Muqtada al-Sadr? And what is their objective?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I don't think there's any one adversary in Sadr City. I was there for three weeks as an embedded correspondent, and I asked this question of a lot of American military commanders: Is there a single chain of command? Is there a single commander of the militia forces that are arrayed against the Americans and the Iraqi troops?

And there doesn't seem to be one. What there appears to be is a number of different cells under the control of different commanders. Some are clearly supplied at least with Iranian arms and are said to be backed by the Iranians. Others have their loyalty to Muqtada al-Sadr.

So I think you're dealing with a number of different cells which may coordinate loosely together, but which also may have separate agendas.

MARGARET WARNER: So as you said, you've been embedded for a number of weeks with the U.S. and Iraqi forces. What is the fighting like on the ground, on the street level?

MICHAEL GORDON: What's happened, which is pretty interesting, is that the Americans pushed in about a month ago and moved into the very southern -- they have sort of a toehold in the southern part of Sadr City.

But the Iraqi troops are to the north and forward of the American troops by, let's say, 500, 600, 700 meters. And this is part of a strategy to build up the capability of the Iraqi security forces by letting them operate semi-autonomously of the American troops, although they're supported by American air power and the American troops have their backs, so to speak.

But it's also intended to put an Iraqi face on the operations. So that's the nature of the deployment.

And basically every night, militia groups infiltrate from the northern part of Sadr City and attack the Iraqi army positions with rocket-propelled grenades, IEDs, you know, just small arms, machine guns.

We had a hand grenade thrown into -- I was with B Company of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry regiment. They had a hand grenade thrown in there. So that's kind of the fight. It's really kind of an insurgent fight.

So far, the Iraqis have generally held their own, although there was an episode in which an entire company of Iraqi troops abandoned their position and fled south.

Iraqis dependent on U.S. support

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the American forces that you've been with, what is their -- what do they tell you about their assessment of the Iraqi troops and how close they are to really being able to carry this fight on their own?

MICHAEL GORDON: They're not close to being able to carry it on their own. I don't think the Iraqis think that, nor do the Americans think that. It's going to be a long process.

I think what the Iraqi forces are doing in Sadr City -- and they're from a relatively new division, the 11th Division -- is they are operating ahead of the Americans.

They're not fighting side-by-side with the Americans; they're fighting 500 meters, 700 meters ahead of the Americans. And, in some cases, they're really bearing the brunt of the militia attacks.

But, you know, they don't have helicopter gun ships. They don't have a Predator drone. They don't have reconnaissance. Their logistics is poor. Sometimes they need the Americans for medical evacuation.

You know, if the Americans were not in Sadr City even 400 or 500 meters behind the Iraqis, I don't think the Iraqi troops would be able to sustain themselves at this point. So I think the development of the Iraqi forces is still very much a work in progress.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, briefly, what's the impact of all this fighting on the civilians there?

MICHAEL GORDON: The ultimate goal is to create this safe zone. And this wall that's being built is being built probably as we speak. Every night, they lay down a new kind of concrete t-wall that's about three meters long.

And they're laying hundreds of them to try to wall -- not to keep the people in the south hemmed in, but to keep the militias to the north from infiltrating south. And this is going to be a long process.

The vision is that, at the end of this process, the militias won't be able to get into the southern area. The government of Iraq will pump in services. It will become sort of like West Berlin and East Berlin, and West Berlin will be the southern area.

Unfortunately, it's really a long way away from that. Every night, there's fighting along this kind of wall that's being built and the militias try to stop that with IEDs, including a lot of EFPs, which is a very lethal type of IED made by Iran.

And within this area itself, the civilians are very often caught in the crossfire. When the Iraqi troops respond to the militia attacks, they often unleash a barrage of fire. It's their style of fighting; it's not always precision fire. Sometimes civilians are hit by that.

And the government of Iraq has yet to really move into this area and begin to restore the services, the electricity, to deal with the trash issue.

And so, really, the efforts that I saw that were going on, trash pickup, some dispersal of humanitarian aid, some medical assistance, were really primarily organized by the American military much more so than the government of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you said, it sounds like there's a long way to go. Michael Gordon of the New York Times, thank you.

MICHAEL GORDON: OK, thank you.