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U.S. Forces Intensify Attacks on Insurgents, U.S. Death Toll Surpasses 1,000

September 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: When the U.S. and its coalition partners handed over power to Iraqis in the end of June, many officials hoped attacks on American soldiers would decrease.

But after a brief respite, insurgent attacks spiked, some aimed at the new Iraqi government, but many at the continuing presence of U.S. Troops. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld yesterday said the spike in casualties showed the insurgents’ desperation.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The progress in Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted a backlash, in effect, from those who hoped that at some point we might conclude that the pain and the cost of this fight isn’t worth it.

Well, our enemies have underestimated our country, our coalition. They have failed to understand the character of our people, and they certainly misread our commander-in-chief.

RAY SUAREZ: In March, a year after the war started, there were more than 500 attacks on U.S. soldiers. In April, May, June and July, there were more than 1,500. By August, the number topped 2,500. In addition to the 1,005 Americans killed in Iraq, the number of wounded now passed 7,000. Much of the violence has been in the Sunni Triangle.

The cities largely under rebel control include Ramadi, Fallujah, Baquba and Samarra. The tactic used against insurgents in Fallujah has shifted to U.S. air attacks on suspected militant strongholds. (Gunfire) U.S. forces pulled out of that city after a three-week siege in April, following the brutal killing of four American contractors. In the South, fighting has spread. In Najaf last month, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were involved in fierce street fighting.

Militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took over at the city’s central mosque before eventually agreeing to a peace deal brokered by Iraq’s top Shiite leader, Ali Al-Sistani. (Gunfire) And this week, fighting has flared in and around Baghdad’s Sadr City, as U.S. forces engaged Sunni and Shiite insurgents in heavy fighting.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, now, we go to Baghdad, and to Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. Rajiv, welcome.

Did the ferocious fighting that took so many casualties over the weekend continue through today?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, today instability did continue, although the violence ebbed a bit. We only have two American soldiers who died in the line of duty today, both in roadside bombing attacks in and near Baghdad. But other violence did continue.

Trouble in the resistive town of Fallujah flared again, and U.S. warplanes pounded a suspected insurgent command-and-control center, according to the military, with a fairly spectacular aerial bombardment this morning, setting off some very dramatic images of buildings going up in flames and smoke, and other reports of attacks on U.S. convoys and Iraqi officials. In some, it’s been a day like many others here — a continuation of the violence, of the scattered attacks, of threats from both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen.

And of course, everybody here is still also following the case of the two Italian non-governmental aide workers who were kidnapped in a home invasion attack yesterday. Their fate is still not known, although a radical Islamist group has claimed credit today for their capture, and no specific demands have yet been issued for their release.

RAY SUAREZ: I want to get to both those things very briefly: First, the people who are doing the uprising. Is the U.S. Military working on the assumption that this new set of assaults is in any way coordinated?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there is a degree of coordination that is taking place within the Sunni insurgency. As yet, we don’t see great signs of coordination between those insurgents and the militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Shiite militiamen have primarily confined their activity in the Baghdad area to a large slum of about 2.5 million people, known as Sadr City. The Sunni insurgency is showing signs of coordination, and it’s coordination between foreign militants and indigenous militants, and coordination between Islamists and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

One interesting point to note: Yesterday, I was talking to some residents of the town of Samarra. Samarra is one of these many no- go zones now. There are no U.S. troops in there. They’re sort of quartered on the edges of town, and in the center are bands of insurgents who have taken over the town, have co-opted the local police.

And what some of these residents are saying is that they’re starting to see signs that the Baathist insurgents are working very closely with the hard-line Islamist insurgents. The Islamist insurgents, who as recently as a month ago were demanding that women wear head scarves and were castigating men for wearing blue jeans, now have sort of stopped doing that because of their new alliance with the Baathists, and the Baathists who come from a more secular tradition for whom such rules don’t necessarily apply.

And to people in town, this is a clear sign that there is now a marriage between these two groups in Samarra. And there is a belief along U.S. military intelligence officials that similar marriages are under way in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, in much of the western part of this country which remains still in the throes of violence, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: And briefly to the kidnapped aide workers. Have those kidnappings been claimed by any group or another, and are these people who are familiar to authorities from previous kidnappings of foreigners?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, at this point it’s… there’s no confirmation as to the group that has taken them. All of these, or many of the foreigners who have been kidnapped are believed to have been at times perhaps even taken by criminal elements, who then sell them up the line to a shadowy network of Islamist militants.

Many of these militant groups are loyal to a man by the name of Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is one of the most-wanted men here in Iraq by U.S. forces. And he is believed to have been orchestrating a string of car bombings and kidnappings.

And so, there’s a whole sort of underworld of these groups, and it’s hard to tell exactly who is in possession of the two Italians. The same goes for two French journalists who were kidnapped now almost two weeks ago; their fate still unknown, despite a flurry of optimistic signals a week ago that they might be released — still no significant movement in that case.

RAY SUAREZ: Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Pleasure to talk to you, Ray.