TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv, welcome to the broadcast. Tell us the situation today in Fallujah.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there continues to be questions about the leadership of this new Iraqi-led force that the U.S. Marines here wants to take charge of the security situation in town. The former Iraqi army general who had been named to head up this unit a couple days ago now wants to be either replaced or at least demoted, and another former Iraqi colonel in the country's intelligence service looks like he will be taking overall command of this unit.
This appears to have stemmed from growing controversy about some of the comments that the general made, as well as his background. The individual, his name is general... what he is alleged to have said over the weekend is that there are no foreign fighters in the city, and this is a great point of contention with the Americans, who believe that the chief cause of a lot of the instability and the insurgency in Fallujah has been sparked by as many as two to three hundred foreign fighters who are holed up there.
There are also questions if he was a battalion commander in the Republican Guard. This is the elite army unit under Saddam Hussein that is responsible or was responsible for a number of rights abuses across the country, including putting down a Shia uprising in the South, and attacks on ethic Kurds in the North.
TERENCE SMITH: What's visible on the streets? Can you see this new Fallujah brigade? Are they visible? Are they being well received by the people, the residents of the city?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the brigade actually hasn't fanned out into the city. What marine officials are saying that they've taken up positions on the outskirts of town, and plan to be moving into the city over the coming days. But journalists and others who have been in the city today say that they have not detected a very large presence of these individuals. And what is more common are civilians with weapons.
There are faces on the streets now. Some of these people say they are either members or prospective members of this new force. Others say they're simply members of the resistance. It runs the gamut. Now, what is interesting to note, though, is that the city has been relatively quiet. There has not been a whole lot of confrontations with the few marine forces that are around the area. Part of this may well be because there are fewer marines.
Today, an additional marine battalion began withdrawing positions in the northern part of the city. So there's less of an opportunity now for the insurgents to take shots with guns or artillery at the marines. So as a consequence, the situation seems to have calmed down a bit.
TERENCE SMITH: And the people of Fallujah, how that they reacted to this whole change of events?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there has been an initial euphoria perceived among the population that they won. That the marines withdrew, that the Iraqis will have control of their own security and their own destiny in the town. And that feeling still exists today, although as the situation calms down, people have been coming out of their homes, they've been assessing the damage, the city was fairly heavily scarred by this month- long confrontation with the U.S. Marines.
TERENCE SMITH: What about the role of the marines and their level of confidence now, that this will work, that this will serve to calm things down in Fallujah, and also eventually root out the insurgents that they were fighting just last week?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there's a lot of uncertainty among the marine leadership here. There was a feeling that there was no other good option. To have gone in with full force, like they did in the first few days, would have risked additional civilian casualties, would have likely risked a lot more marine casualties as they would have had to push into the central part of town, places where there are narrow streets, perfect environments for the insurgents especially to be taking pot shots at the marines from rooftops and windows.
It also would have caused a great deal of outrage, as it already has, but it would have escalated across the country at what was perceived as excessive American force to deal with the problem in Fallujah. Walking away also would not have been a solution. So faced with no other options, the marines are faced with this third option, which is the Iraqi proxy force.
The hope is that the leaders of this new force will pursue the insurgents. What may well turn out to be the case is that they will-- and this is a fact acknowledged by or a worry acknowledged by marine officials here-- that they may turn a blind eye and let some of these foreign fighters just escape or walk away, if you will, so they don't have to have that bloody confrontation. And then appeal to the hundreds of other ordinary young males in Fallujah who have picked up weapons in support of some of the foreign fighters and say to them, "hey, look, we now are in charge here, put down your weapons and join us into the future." And so that may well be one plausible scenario of what would unfold here over the coming weeks.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile there are reports of fighting to the South in the city of Najaf between U.S. forces and some Shiite militia men there. What can you tell us about that?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, fairly intense fighting down in Najaf. It started when militiamen loyal to Muqtaba al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric, began mortaring a U.S. Army position on the outskirts of town. The soldiers responded with tank round, with their own artillery fire back. Apache helicopters buzzed overhead.
When all was said and done, American officials estimate that about 20 of the suspected militia men were killed. There are some reports of civilian injuries, although that is a little hazy at this point. The American commanders down there say that despite this confrontation and others like it over the past several days, they don't plan to storm into Najaf, which is one of the holiest cities in Iraq, particularly for Shiite Muslims. And that they will continue to push forward with diplomatic options, trying to get Sadr to dissolve his militia and comply with other requests made by U.S. occupation force. But they will engage Sadr's militia men if they are attacked or if they present themselves as in military parlance, targets of opportunity.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: My pleasure to talk to you.