Fierce Fighting Continues for Fifth Day in Iraq
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome again to the broadcast. Judging from the news reports, there seems to be a lot going on in both the political and military fronts in Iraq.
Let’s start with the military first. What’s the state of fighting today?
JOHN BURNS: Well, to begin with, the things that are closest to me here in Baghdad: The United States military has declared, through the Iraqi civil authorities, a curfew from 4:00 P.M. to 8:00 A.M. In Sadr City, the Shiite slum about four miles northeast of where I’m standing now.
That will give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation there. It’s quite plain who is in charge of Sadr City, and that is Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric. It looks as though the United States military, with the support of the new Iraqi government, is intending to go in there and try and clear things out.
To the South, at Najaf, the holy city 120 miles south of Baghdad, something similar is occurring. The United States Marine Corps, now reinforced by an army battalion, have been fighting for five days for the control of the center city of Najaf, which has brought them right to the edge of the most holy shrine in Islam, the Imam Ali Shrine, and the huge cemetery, something like twelve or fifteen square miles of cemetery that abuts it– again, the holiest cemetery in Shiite Islam.
That fighting is inconclusive as of right now. The U.S. Military tells us they’ve killed over 360 of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army militiamen. Sadr himself appeared for the first time in days today and was a study in defiance, specifically rejecting calls from Dr. Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, to, in effect, withdraw his fighters from Najaf and to join the political process ahead of the elections in January.
So it looks as though there is going to be a fight, a renewed fight, in Najaf, and at this point it’s a bit premature to say which way it will go except that it leads to a state of terrific tension in all the affected parts of Iraq, which is Baghdad and the southern cities, the southern Shiite cities.
TERENCE SMITH: Are there any reports, John, of any negotiations towards a resumed cease-fire that might be going on behind scenes?
JOHN BURNS: Well, Dr. Allawi, who has flown down to Najaf in a United States army Black Hawk helicopter yesterday on a day of… in which he cast himself as Iraq’s hard man, said “no truce, no negotiations whatsoever.”
I noticed that the U.S. Command spokesman today was a little bit more tentative than that. He didn’t absolutely rule out negotiations, but it looks as though the negotiations would be of the same kind that occurred in March and April, which was an agreement by Sadr’s people to, in effect, disarm the city center, at least lay down their arms.
That, of course, collapsed. And I don’t think anybody realistically believes that renewed negotiations in this circumstance would be productive.
TERENCE SMITH: Given what you’ve just described in Sadr City and in Najaf, what’s the state of support for Muqtada al-Sadr? Is it widespread? Is it growing?
JOHN BURNS: It’s very hard to say. It’s quite clear that the middle class in Najaf… and I would think a majority of the residents of Najaf do not like Sadr’s people one little bit. He has destroyed, in effect, commerce in the city; he has terrorized people; he has murdered policemen; he has decapitated policemen. It’s a very unpleasant scene.
But Sadr City is a different place. Sadr City is an impoverished slum, and Sadr’s populist message has a much greater appeal there, and we at the New York Times had graphic evidence of that yesterday when one of our photographers was within 150 yards of a U.S. Military helicopter, attack helicopter that was shot down.
And there was a “Black Hawk Down” revisited situation there for two hours, in which the wounded crew were extracted by a quick reaction force. The helicopter and the area were set upon by… by scores of people– not in Mahdi army uniforms, not dressed in black– people who looked as though they had just grabbed their Kalashnikovs and run to the site and their rocket-propelled grenades, and looking at those photographs brought back by our photographer, I had to say, it gave me a very grim view of what lies ahead.
It looks very much that up there what the United States is fighting is, in effect, something that we might call a war of national resistance.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, on the political front, these arrests of the Chalabis– Ahmed Chalabi and Salem Chalabi– what’s behind those?
JOHN BURNS: Well, it’s politics. That’s not to preclude the possibility that there may be some substance to the charges.
It’s not the first time that Ahmed Chalabi has been accused in one jurisdiction or another of financial irregularities. And he has, of course, denied them, as has his nephew. But behind all of that, there’s politics. Ahmed Chalabi aspired to be the first post-Saddam Hussein president of Iraq and anticipated that he would be, in effect, placed in that position by the united… by the Pentagon.
As we know, that plan disintegrated months ago, and Chalabi was left without any kind of political base. But as he has been in the past a political chameleon, he recast himself as a champion, if you will, of the moderate Islamist cause here, and it looked like he recently… his aspiration was to become the first prime minister– elected prime minister– of Iraq, in effect, in those January elections with the support of the moderate imams of an Iranian-backed Islamic Party.
That makes him a rival of Dr. Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, who, of course, now has the levers of power in his hands. He has 135,000 American troops. He has an increasingly significant Iraqi security force: Army, National Guard, police.
And it looks to me as though that Dr. Allawi, whatever the merits of the legal case may be, saw in these accusations a handy opportunity, in effect, to unseat both of the Chalabis, who have resolved to return, but I’ll believe that when I see it. They’re outside the country at the moment, and it looks as though they would be arrested and jailed if they did come back.
TERENCE SMITH: Obviously a very fast- moving situation. John Burns of the New York Times, thank you so much for bringing us up-to-date on it.
JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, Terry. Thank you very much.