U.S. Attacks Insurgents in Iraq Killing at Least 78 Iraqis
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RAY SUAREZ: Rajiv, welcome. What happened over the weekend to drive the number of dead and injured in Iraq so high?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it was a very violent weekend, Ray, with a whole array of different sorts of attacks. We had mortars landing literally by the score on the U.S.- controlled green zone. The estimate is about 20 rounds hit. No serious damage, but certainly one of the largest barrages in that supposedly high-secure zone in a long time — also hearing today from senior government sources that there were as many as a dozen car bombs that exploded around the country on Sunday. Most of them didn’t cause any significant damage. There was one right outside the entrance to Baghdad’s convention center that detonated pretty harmlessly, but an indication of the breadth of the offensive that had been planned. But the attacks that did go through wound up killing an estimated 80 Iraqis and wounding more than 100, according to the health ministry here.
In one particularly vivid attack, a U.S. Army patrol driving through downtown Baghdad on a dangerous gauntlet known as Haifa Street was ambushed, and one these massive Bradley fighting vehicles, a pretty imposing American armored personnel carrier, was disabled in a roadside bomb explosion. There was a controversial follow-on attack by the Americans after that. Worried that the Iraqis might be trying to loot guns and ammunition from that Bradley, an Apache attack helicopter fired a missile at that Bradley. The explosion killed an estimated 11 people. Iraqis say that many of the people around there weren’t really looting; they were just observing. And among the dead was one journalist. So Sunday’s violence really, you know, illustrated the extent to which the insurgents here are trying to mount a coordinated campaign aimed at destabilizing the situation.
RAY SUAREZ: Moving forward to today, the United States launched strikes against the disputed town of Fallujah.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That’s right. Yet again, this is turning into an almost daily occurrence. The U.S. military believes that one of its most-wanted figures in Iraq, the Jordanian born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose shadowy military group is believed to be responsible for a string of kidnappings, car bombings and other attacks, they believe that he and many of his top lieutenants are holed up in Fallujah. So yet again, early this morning U.S. warplanes bombarded the target. The military took pains to say that this was a precision strike aimed only at militants. But officials in Fallujah paint a different picture.
They say that as many as 20, if not more, people were killed in this. They claim that civilians were targeted. And they say that an ambulance carrying seven people in it was among the vehicles struck in this attack. Now there’s no way to really confirm who is telling the truth here. Fallujah has turned into a no-go zone for not just U.S. military personnel, but foreign journalists like myself. So it’s very difficult to ascertain ground truth, and so we have to rely on comments from the U.S. military saying that it really was a narrow strike, and those from officials in Fallujah who paint a much grimmer picture of what occurred.
RAY SUAREZ: Still, an airborne strike on a populated urban area is a risky thing. Does this testify to the fact that the U.S. military considers Zarqawi and his followers to be key players in the fight back against American military power in the country?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah, he’s certainly viewed as one of the chief ring leaders of the violence at the moment. He is a shadowy figure, not much is known about him. He is believed to be linked to the al-Qaida terrorist organization, although operating largely independently. His network seems to stretch beyond Fallujah.
It’s believed to extend to cities like Samarra, north of Baghdad. And even in these… some of the incidents in Baghdad yesterday, near that Bradley fighting vehicle that was disabled, some of the people out on the street were hoisting some signs in support of Zarqawi. The Americans believe if they go… if they can get Zarqawi and his top deputies, that they might be able to put a very significant dent into the insurgency and into the command- and-control structure of the insurgency that is bedeviling U.S. and Iraqi security forces here.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little more about Fallujah, in particular with today’s U.S. air strike. This is a city that was supposed to be pacified back in the spring. And some of your latest reporting has to do with regrets on the part of senior military officers?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That’s correct. The outgoing overall marine commando in charge of western Iraq, Lieutenant General James T. Conway, had some very candid comments yesterday as he relinquished his command. He essentially said that it was not his choice to go in to Fallujah, to mount a full-scale invasion on the city in early April. That invasion, as you recall, was ordered up after four American security contractors were brutally murdered and mutilated in the city.
Conway said in his comments to myself and a couple of other journalists yesterday, that he would have preferred to have continued on with targeted military operations and continued engagement with city leaders in an effort to pursue the pockets of insurgents. He said that the full-scale invasion of Fallujah, which he said was ordered up by military officials of a higher rank, essentially served to alienate and radicalize the town, turning people who might have been more susceptible or prone to cooperation with U.S. coalition forces and the Iraqi government, turn them into fighters against the coalition and supporters of the insurgency.
RAY SUAREZ: Is it unusual for a senior military officer to be this candid when he’s still in uniform, and indeed still in theater?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It is. It’s certainly some of the most candid comments we’ve heard here, acknowledging missteps. Now, this may well be because this decision is certainly seen as one of the biggest mistakes that’s been made by the military. I should add that Conway followed on and said that the decision that was made a few weeks after that invasion began to then abruptly withdraw marine units and hand over power to a group called the Fallujah Brigade, a group of ex-Iraqi army officers, he said was also a mistake.
He said that once marines were in the city they should have finished the job that they were asked to do. That Fallujah Brigade has dissolved. It’s turned into an utter failure. Many of the members have failed to pursue the insurgents as they were supposed to. Some of them have even sided with the insurgents in attacks on the Americans. And many of their weapons and vehicles have been seized by the insurgents. And that group was officially disbanded last week.
RAY SUAREZ: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thanks for being with us.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you again, Ray.