RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Finer, welcome. What are your people in the field reporting back from western Iraq?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, what we hear now is that there was some pretty heavy fighting beginning Sunday night and continuing into early Tuesday morning, and that has now started to slow down. A lot of civilians have fled some of the smaller towns near the Syrian border where the heaviest fighting is taking place.
And some of the stuff Marines were doing out there was some of the most intense fighting I think U.S. forces here have seen since the assault on Fallujah in November, a lot of house-to-house combat and some very close-quarters fighting.
RAY SUAREZ: Were large numbers of personnel deployed in the field?
JONATHAN FINER: We have seen reports up to 1,000 or more Marines and Army soldiers in that area.
RAY SUAREZ: And is this a multiple force kind of strike? Is there air support as well as ground fighting going on?
JONATHAN FINER: There's been considerable air support, from what we understand, from Cobra helicopters, F-18 fighters. Basically, they've been using everything in the arsenal to go after some of these insurgents who are sort of dug in, in these towns.
Because they believe -- what happens is a lot of insurgents cross over from Syria and end up getting their missions and getting some of their armaments in small villages where the U.S. hasn't paid a whole lot of attention until recently.
RAY SUAREZ: Having said that, what does the military say it's trying to accomplish? Are they going to move these people somewhere else or break up their units and end their ability to fight?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, obviously, the latter point you make is the goal, but the concern that everybody has is that what might happen is what essentially happened in Fallujah during that assault that I mentioned earlier in November, where a lot of the insurgents stayed to fight.
But many of them fled the city and reportedly now have since returned. So the concern is that they want to basically end the use of these small towns for insurgents and foreign fighters crossing the border, but it's not entirely clear that that's going to happen.
RAY SUAREZ: When you say "insurgents and foreign fighters," is there any really reliable estimate of how much of each we're talking about?
JONATHAN FINER: No. I mean, the proportion is certainly not known at this point, although the Marines and also our reporters in the field have reported seeing evidence that many of the fighters that are opposing the Marines there are foreign, based on the way that they look and the way that they dress and the accents they use.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you aware from the reporting that Washington Post reporters have been doing in western Iraq that the people who live in that area, in the towns along the Euphrates River really support the insurgency?
JONATHAN FINER: Well, it's a mixed bag as it is in much of the country. The Marines say they've been warmly welcomed, that they're gets lots tips by some of the locals about where the insurgents are hiding. What they're doing now, essentially, is acting on those tips.
Where the insurgents at the beginning of the offensive were standing and fighting, now that they've begun to hide, the Marines say they're taking advantage of assistance from the locals to go and actually find them.
But it's clear also, as its Marines have raided these houses, they've come across stashes of weapons and other sorts of supplies that make it clear that whoever lives in those places have been providing sanctuary to some of these insurgents as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Any idea on the levels of casualties, not only among the insurgents and American forces, but among civilians as well?
JONATHAN FINER: Again, you know, these estimates, they're all fairly preliminary. We've seen reports of more than 100 insurgents killed. I think the Marines have only reported a couple of fatalities and a few injuries to go along with it.
We spoke with a doctor at a hospital in Qaim, which is one of the towns where some of the heavy fighting is taking place, and he reported more than 20 civilian deaths had come through his doors in that hospital.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this a place where there's been a lot of action since the war began in 2003? Is this a place where American forces have done much fighting earlier in the war?
JONATHAN FINER: There have been sort of sporadic skirmishes and a few minor incursions, but certainly nothing on the magnitude of what's happening right now. The U.S. has focused its attention on some of the cities closer to Baghdad, but now it appears they're turning their attention to some of these rural areas.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this part of Iraq that's included in this Syrian border area a part of the province governed by the provincial governor who has been kidnapped?
JONATHAN FINER: Yes, that's right. He was kidnapped sometime today by -- at least the claim was made that he was kidnapped by an insurgent group. There have been conflicting reports of what motivated the kidnapping. Some accounts have portrayed this as simply a tribal dispute, that one tribe wants the provincial governor to release prisoners that have been taken related to another tribe.
Whereas the other accounts say that this is actually directly related to the Marine incursion and that the governor will not be released until the incursion is halted by the Marines. It's not entirely clear what the motive is. The group that took him has not issued a definitive statement of what their intentions are.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this person a fairly prominent person, someone who would be well known in the al Anbar region?
JONATHAN FINER: Certainly, in that region, he's the highest-ranking political official out there. He was kidnapped along with his son and the local police chief and a couple of bodyguards, we believe, as well. What happened -- they were traveling in a convoy. They say to go and observe some of the results of the fighting in that region along the Syrian border, and the convoy was ambushed.
RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Finer, thanks for being with us.
JONATHAN FINER: Thank you very much.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on this situation and what it indicates about both American and insurgent tactics, we're joined by: Retired Army Col. Patrick Lang, a former defense attaché in the Middle East and chief Middle East analyst for the defense intelligence agency during first Gulf War.
And Mahan Abedin, editor of the Terrorism Monitor at the Jamestown Foundation, which provides analysis of trends and events in the Middle East. Now, Patrick Lang, the American military has called this western part of Iraq a "safe haven for terrorists." Now, you know a little bit about counterinsurgency. What does that mean you have to do?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that in classic Special Forces sort of doctrine about insurgencies and counterinsurgencies what you could call this place is really a "redoubt area." It is an area within the country you're seeking to defend, which the enemy has infiltrated heavily, has some basis of popular support, and is converting it -- has been converting it into a relatively secure base of operations.
This has been made easier by the fact that as the Marine officers are saying on the ground, they don't have anything like enough troops, in fact, to actually be able to occupy this place all the time. So, you have to be able to go in and break this up, otherwise it will solidify into concrete out there and they'll own it.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit more, Mahan Abedin, about western Anbar. This is a place where three international borders converge: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria. Has this been a porous part of Iraqi where people are able to move back and forth easily?
MAHAN ABEDIN: Indeed, I mean, we at the Jamestown Foundation, particularly with our two publications, The Terrorism Monitor and Terrorism Focus, have been doing a lot of research on the Iraqi insurgency, and clearly Anbar, the Anbar Province, is the extreme western Iraqi province is the heartland of the Iraqi insurgency.
Aside from the fact that it borders Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and therefore is a very comfortable transition point for the insurgents, there are certain intrinsic features about the Anbar Province that make so interesting and so useful for the insurgents. I mean, first and foremost, it's a bastion of Iraqi nationalism. It historically has been.
Secondly, militant Islam is very strong in the Anbar Province. Therefore, there's a lot of sympathy among the local population for the insurgents, and it's not surprising at all that the insurgents can operate there so easily. And this includes both the indigenous insurgents, who are from these local areas, and also some of the foreigners who are coming through from the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi border.
RAY SUAREZ: But isn't it a pretty sparsely populated place? How does it support an armed resistance?
MAHAN ABEDIN: Anbar is indeed sparsely populated, but that in some respects works to the advantage of the insurgents. For instance, what's been happening now for the past two days is that very large guerrilla formations have been establishing bases and logistics networks in that part of Anbar since late last year.
And it's effectively lawless, especially that area toward the Syrian border where a lot of the recent fighting has been taking place, the area between Qaim and Obadi. It's quite easy for the insurgents to operate there. So to the fact it's sparsely populated, in some respects, it works to their advantage.
RAY SUAREZ: And Patrick Lang, Syria is, you were saying, a less attractive place for them to be?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Oh, I think so. The Syrian government is now so focused on its difficulties with the United States that to allow large numbers of international jihadis to stay in eastern Syria and operate from there is just far too dangerous a thing. So, if they want to move east across border into a receptive area like western Anbar and establish bases and things like that, the Syrians, I'm sure, are quite happy to have them go.
RAY SUAREZ: Is this an area that can give a lot of material aid? When you're trying to fight against an insurgency, how does local sympathy work with you if you are an insurgent, against you if you're trying to root them out?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, it's absolutely essential if you are the insurgent because you have a small group of armed men who have light weapons and who are vulnerable to the counterinsurgents.
You have to have some element of the population, which has to be substantial, that will give you shelter, will protect you from the neighbors ratting on you to the counterinsurgents, provide you with food. As you say, this is a desert area. You have to make sure that you're taken in and safeguarded all the time.
If you didn't have it out there, you'd be just unable to operate altogether. And I think what the Marines are running into out there is not just the international jihadis. They're also running into this kind of basic layer of underlying Bedouin and semi-Bedouin Sunni Arabs out in that area who belong to the other part of the insurgency, the more natively Iraqi part.
RAY SUAREZ: Mahan Abedin, does the United States have to tread carefully in this area? If they're too aggressive in trying to root out the insurgents, do they create more popular sympathy for them?
MAHAN ABEDIN: That's always a problem, but it's a great dilemma, really, because the only thing that can work is force. There's been a lot of talk recently about establishing some kind ever a compromise with some of the insurgents, particularly the ones with a Baathist or more nationalist agenda.
But I think that's just wishful thinking. What's ultimately going to defeat the insurgents in Iraq is operations of this kind. So we're going to be seeing a lot of these for the months and years to come. Now, obviously, it's going to cause a lot of grievances. For instance, what happened in Fallujah back in November was quite problematic in the sense that it isolated large numbers of indigenous people.
But I would also say that whatever the United States does in that western region of Iraq is not necessarily going to make that much difference, because indigenous support for the insurgents is very strong indeed. These are essentially a constituency in Iraqi society that feels extremely disenfranchised at the moment.
The downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime removed a lot of their privileges, and a lot of fighting that you're seeing right now, a lot of the attacks are basically an attempt by the broader currents in the Arab-Sunni community to reestablish the dominion in Iraq. So what the United States does in those regions is not necessarily the decisive factor.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Patrick Lang, the new Iraqi government, after a lot of haggling and arm twisting, named a Sunni to that key position, defense minister. Is this something that can help?
COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, it could well help. You know, the great question is, is whether or not the new government, which is essentially Shia and Kurdish and people of this stripe, will, in fact, do enough to cause people on the other side who are of the more nationalist variety, as was just -- they were just referred to, caused them, in fact, to decide that they don't want to continue supporting the insurgency.
I don't really see that the issue is decided yet as to whether or not this government has gone far enough to do something like that because the question will be whether or not the people appointed to the government are accepted by their own people, where if there are people who went into exile overseas are seen to be acceptable to the Shia Arabs on some basis, that doesn't make them truly representative of their own folk.
So it remains to be seen. Everybody is telling me right now, in fact, you know, that our essential idea is that we want to see if we can stand this government up or if it stands up and their security forces stand up so we can start withdrawing our troops. But the more realistic people who are just back from Iraq that I've talked to recently say they don't think this government will do very well without a very considerable American military presence for a long time.
RAY SUAREZ: Can I get a quick response from you, Mahan Abedin, on that very point?
MAHAN ABEDIN: Right. Well, I think the new Iraqi prime minister, Mr. Jaafari, has been trying to co-opt some of the Arab Sunnis in order to cut the ground from the insurgents. That's always a good idea, but it has intrinsic limitations.
As I said earlier, many of the insurgents, whether the nationalist ones or Islamic ones, they have an agenda which is not necessarily open to compromise. So, just because Mr. Jaafari manages to co-opt some Arab Sunnis-- for instance, the new defense minister -- again, that's not necessarily going to make a big difference.
And I would agree with Pat Lang insofar as American troops are going to be needed in Iraq for a very long time to come. I mean, they're going to be needed to provide stability and to prop up this government because the insurgents, the guerillas -- call them what you will -- they're extremely powerful, and foreign forces will be needed in that country for some time to come.
RAY SUAREZ: Mahan Abedin, Patrick Lang, good to see you both.