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Heavy Fighting Continues in Najaf, Baghdad

August 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Pamela Constable, thank you for joining us. What’s the latest on the fighting as we speak?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, there’s been very, very serious fighting, especially in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, throughout the day.

There are very confusing reports about both the origins of the fighting and the number of casualties that have resulted. But this is still a full blown and fluid battle situation.

There are also ongoing clashes in Sadr City, a very poor Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, and in several other cities there have been more minor battles. So this is certainly an uprising that has not yet run its course.

TERENCE SMITH: And does this now seem to be a full scale Shiite uprising of the sort and dimension that we saw two or three months ago?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It’s certainly very intense, very angry, and has the potential to become extremely serious. You know, back in the early ’90s, there were Shiite uprisings again Saddam Hussein that ended up with thousands and thousands being killed.

We’re nowhere near that point, and in fact, even in April and May before the cease-fire, there were, I believe, maybe several hundred people killed during two months of fighting. So I don’t think we should over exaggerate the nature of the trouble, but the bottom line is that the Shiites are very upset, they are very angry.

They believe that American forces, correctly or not, have attacked their holy sites in Najaf, and they really were waiting for an excuse to get out on the streets. And now that this army of Muqtada Sadr’s has formed, it too was basically ready and waiting for an excuse to get out and cause mayhem.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, you said they were waiting. What motivates them?

What is the fundamental complaint that’s being expressed now through the point of a gun?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, it’s a mixture of things. I would say the underlying issue is they do not want foreign troops and they use the word “occupiers.”

They do not want international forces in Iraq telling them what to do. Much more specifically and immediately, you have things like the lack of electricity and running water.

People have every day problems. A lot of young men are unemployed, chronically unemployed, which has drawn them further into these Shiite militias.

You have poverty and festering social problems combined with very strong resentment against foreign troops and it’s a very… it’s a powder keg kind of combination.

TERENCE SMITH: Are there any efforts underway, that you’re aware of, to restore the cease-fire?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, it’s interesting. Today being Friday, was the weekly prayers, and at many of the Shiite mosques in Baghdad, Najaf, and other places, there were fire-breathing, rabble- rousing sermons against the foreigners, against the Iraqi government, against just about everybody who was a figure of power, urging people to openly to come out in the street and take up arms and kill Americans and kill the government, and very, very provocative kinds of statements.

On the other hand, you also had several of Sadr’s spokespeople saying that they would welcome a truce, they would welcome an effort to negotiate and bring back the cease-fire of June. So they are definitely sending out mixed signals at varying levels to varying audiences.

So I think there is some hope for a resumed truce. But I do think they’re trying to feed the anger of their own people in the meantime.

TERENCE SMITH: Are the U.S.-led coalition forces and the Iraqi interim government actually trying to capture and arrest Muqtada al-Sadr?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, the marines, who are now, fairly recently having changed places with the army, now based outside of Najaf, say and said again today, that they are not specifically aiming at arresting him or going after him.

They say they’re not specifically going after any one individual, that they are simply there to help — that they only came in to Najaf at the request of the Iraqi governor, because he couldn’t handle the violence in the streets. That’s what they say.

On the other hand, Sadr’s people are very suspicious, and see any movement of international troops inside Najaf as a sign that they’re coming to get him. I was in Najaf some months ago, and all of a sudden, rumors swept the street, “they’re coming to get him, they’re coming to get him.” And everybody thought, you know, the army was coming to get Sadr.

Well, it turned out it was a patrol… sorry, a U.S. Military convoy that was bringing an American diplomat to come visit the city. So this is the kind of thing that spreads like wildfire and may have nothing to do with reality at all.

TERENCE SMITH: Pamela Constable of the Washington Post, thank you very much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re very welcome.