Background: U.S. and Iraqi Troops Launch an Offensive in Najaf
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TERENCE SMITH: Karl Vick, welcome to the broadcast. Can you tell us what you saw and heard and were able to learn about today’s fighting in Najaf?
KARL VICK: After last night, what looked like a major operation had been postponed, it went forward in some form early this morning before dawn. And essentially what happened is the 7th Cavalry, General Custer’s old regiment, moved up from the south and began what they’re describing as an armored cordon around the old city of Najaf, which is about a third of the city.
It’s basically the heart of the city, and the core of it is the shrine of Imam Ali, the most sacred site in Shiite Islam. And it’s… there was some fighting. I think they described it as “fairly intense” in spots where they met resistance as they tried to sort of hold this perimeter road around this section of the town.
And at some point, it looked like they were calling for reinforcements when they tried to take something called revolutionary circle, which is a point on the main boulevard toward the shrine. But they blew past whatever resistance was there and took it. So that was sort of the main sort of strategic move of the day.
There have been other operations. The marines went out this afternoon and raided Sadr’s home, although they say that wasn’t the objective; the real objective was several buildings around the house that had been staging areas and recruitment centers for his Mahdi army militia.
And there are still operations going on now that I can’t talk about because I’m embedded with the marine expeditionary unit that’s in charge of this area.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any… since Muqtada al-Sadr was not there, is there any information about his whereabouts? Is it believed that he is, if not at home, at least in Najaf?
KARL VICK: Yeah. The assumption is that he’s somewhere near the shrine downtown, in the center of the city.
That shrine has been administered by other clerics more senior than him, until recently. His forces have sort of taken it over in the last couple of months.
TERENCE SMITH: The Pentagon was showing… released some film today that showed Sadr’s militiamen inside the compound of the shrine, firing off mortars. Is that anything you can confirm or that you saw or knew about?
KARL VICK: I haven’t seen that footage. I have heard about it, and I understand the Iraqi interim government held a press conference in Baghdad, too. I can confirm… I mean, I sat in an army operations center where they have radar that immediately locks onto coordinates of launch site and trajectory or mortars, and they… I’ve seen the log where this morning they logged 40-some mortars coming out of that site, out of the shrine, toward this Iraqi police station about a mile away.
And they do that fairly routinely– not quite in that number, but it’s no secret that they’re launching mortars from… and stowing arms in that shrine site.
TERENCE SMITH: And how close are the U.S. and Iraqi security forces to that shrine, and how sensitive a target is it in terms of going in there?
KARL VICK: I think they’re quite close in some areas, a matter of several hundred yards, but in general this cordon, which is the significant military operation, was described to me as being about a one-mile radius around the shrine.
That’s basically a noose. The political question really will be whether they tighten that or not and they draw these forces closer. Now, as they draw closer, there will come a point where it will be too culturally and politically combustible to have American forces in the shrine themselves… itself, if they make the decision to try and take the shrine.
At that point, we expect, if the decision comes, for Iraqi commandos who have been trained by U.S. Special Forces, some of whom I saw today, to actually breach the shrine and go in and do whatever needs to be done to take it back.
TERENCE SMITH: And are U.S. officials saying that part of their objective is to capture or kill Muqtada al-Sadr?
KARL VICK: You know, they said that a few months ago when he first popped up and was ambushing them and causing a lot of trouble and fomenting this insurgency, last April.
Now they say quite the opposite. They say they don’t care about him. They were denying for a couple hours today that they were even in his house, and then they realized they had been there.
But they emphasized it was not the objective, and a marine major said to me, “we don’t care where he is. He’s not our problem. He’s Prime Minister Allawi’s problem.” So that’s the attitude now.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And finally, who is doing most of the fighting here? Is it the U.S. forces, the Iraqi security forces, which?
KARL VICK: It’s the U.S. forces. I mean, the American military isn’t really set to fight side by side with any other army outside of NATO, and… but they are not diminishing the sacrifice that the Iraqi police are making as they’re defending their station here and taking all this mortar fire or… there have been outbreaks of violence, of fighting in several of the cities in the south like Kut, which is to the southeast of Baghdad, where some 70 people were reported killed today.
And it was Iraqi police and National Guard, with U.S. Special Forces supporting them, who were fighting back.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Karl Vick of the Washington Post, thanks very much for bringing us up to date.
KARL VICK: My pleasure.