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Battle in Samarra, Iraq

December 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Dexter Filkins, welcome. We’re hearing conflicting reports about what happened in Samarra yesterday. I know you were up there today. What have you learned about how the whole thing unfolded?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, it was a pretty amazing turn of events. Really what happened was the ambushed became the ambushers. The Americans had… well, the Iraqis were waiting for the Americans to come up the road and to come down the street, and in great numbers and with pretty amazing intelligence and sophistication. And the Americans were expecting it; at least were prepared for it. And so, when the Iraqis started shooting, the Americans had brought in extra troops and a lot of firepower, and it became a huge gun battle, and it looked like… from what I could gather, it looks like a lot of Iraqi guerrillas were killed yesterday.

MARGARET WARNER: You said that obviously the Iraqis knew the Americans were coming. We’ve also heard that the whole town was absolutely quiet when the Americans came in. Do the Americans think that the Iraqis are successfully essentially infiltrating American plans and operations before they occur?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, that certainly is a danger. There’s no evidence of that. I think you could look back to a month ago, a month ago to the day, I believe. The Americans had sent two trucks full of currency to these same banks, and so it was regarded as a monthly delivery of money. And a month ago the Americans were attacked, the same trucks were attacked, and it was an unsuccessful attack, it wasn’t as sophisticated. But… so it may have just been that the Iraqis were waiting and they were making a bet, and it was a good bet, that the Americans were going to come up the road.

MARGARET WARNER: We’re also hearing conflicting versions about how many people were killed and whether they were mostly fighters or whether they were mostly civilians. What were you able to ascertain on that question?

DEXTER FILKINS: That’s very confusing. I didn’t see a body of a single person today who appeared to be a guerrilla. I did see the bodies of people who looked to be civilians, you know, an old man, a middle-aged woman. There were other reports. But I think it’s very, very confusing, but the Americans make a pretty good case. And when you talk to the individual soldiers they give very detailed accounts of the people that they believe they killed. And I think their explanation– and I think it’s a pretty good one– is that most of the guerillas that they killed were carted off in the middle of the night. But I think, unfortunately, there were some civilians killed. There’s no question about that.

MARGARET WARNER: So the bodies you saw were where, at the hospital?

DEXTER FILKINS: At the morgue.

MARGARET WARNER: And I gather that the Iraqis are saying that even if fighters originally attacked the Americans, then the Americans started to fire at random? What is the U.S. Military saying to that?

DEXTER FILKINS: The U.S. Military denies it. And I have to say, I mean, I think they brought a lot of fire power, and there was a lot of bullets and a lot of shells that were flying around the other night. But I think the military, the American military is a very disciplined force, above all else it’s disciplined, and they’ve got very strict rules of engagement. And they… by and large, they don’t shoot until they’re either shot at or somebody picks up a gun and demonstrates some kind of hostile intent. I think in the confusion and the chaos of urban fighting, I mean, this was a battle that was going on right in the middle of the city — and when it started there were civilians walking around all over the place — and in that kind of chaotic and confusing situation innocent people died. And that’s unfortunate, but I don’t think the firing was random. It may have been, but I’d be surprised.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell me more about the Iraqis’ response to this, and tell us a little about Samarra. Is this an area, is this a town pretty hostile to the American occupation?

DEXTER FILKINS: I think by and large Samarra is a very hostile town. I mean, I could feel it when I went there. I had been hearing stories about it, I’d been there before. It’s just down the road from Tikrit, which is Saddam Hussein’s hometown. Most of the people there were direct beneficiaries of Saddam’s regime. It’s majority Sunni Arab. It’s right in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. So it’s been very hostile, and the Americans have had a very difficult job and a very difficult time there trying to construct a government that’s friendly and is kind of relatively democratic.

MARGARET WARNER: There were also, as we know, the killings of a number of foreign civilians, Spanish soldiers and others this weekend. Does it appear to you– you’ve been there quite a while– that the insurgents’ tactics are changing?

DEXTER FILKINS: They’re absolutely changing. I think… I’ve been here most of the time since the war started, and I think what I’ve seen, what most of the people here have seen, is that the guerrillas are just looking… they’re looking for soft targets, they’re looking for easy targets. They started with American soldiers, it’s become very difficult to kill American soldiers now. Then they went to relief workers. They drove most of those out of town. Then they went to Iraqi police. It’s very difficult to get near an Iraqi police station now. And so what you saw over the weekend was Korean civilian relief workers, contractors, a Colombian, you had a couple of Japanese diplomats. Those are the soft targets now.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Rumsfeld in Brussels today, when asked about this incident and what had happened over the weekend, said that still a majority of the country he said was in a relatively stable circumstance. How would you describe it in terms of how wide or how large is the area in which this violence still is occurring?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, that’s an interesting question. The overwhelming majority of the violence is still confined to a relatively small area, which is commonly known as the Sunni Triangle, which is the area that sweeps west and north of Baghdad. But what I found that’s troubling, very troubling in the last few weeks even, things are changing very fast here, is that the violence and the instability seems to be spreading. It may not be definitive yet, but I went, for example, last week to the city of Mosul, which is the third-largest Iraqi city, it’s the North.

Three months ago that place was a success story, it was calm, everybody was happy, everything was moving forward. That’s the place where two Americans were shot in the head a few days back; people thought that their throats had been cut. Helicopters had been shot down. When I went there, I found a population that was extremely hostile, and which was very different from what I had seen before. And so I think on one hand the violence is still confined to a relatively small area, but I think that there’s some very troubling signs that the violence is starting to spread outside of the Sunni Triangle.

MARGARET WARNER: Dexter Filkins, thanks again.