MARGARET WARNER: Now, the American forces that you've been with, what is their -- what do they tell you about their assessment of the Iraqi troops and how close they are to really being able to carry this fight on their own?
MICHAEL GORDON: They're not close to being able to carry it on their own. I don't think the Iraqis think that, nor do the Americans think that. It's going to be a long process.
I think what the Iraqi forces are doing in Sadr City -- and they're from a relatively new division, the 11th Division -- is they are operating ahead of the Americans.
They're not fighting side-by-side with the Americans; they're fighting 500 meters, 700 meters ahead of the Americans. And, in some cases, they're really bearing the brunt of the militia attacks.
But, you know, they don't have helicopter gun ships. They don't have a Predator drone. They don't have reconnaissance. Their logistics is poor. Sometimes they need the Americans for medical evacuation.
You know, if the Americans were not in Sadr City even 400 or 500 meters behind the Iraqis, I don't think the Iraqi troops would be able to sustain themselves at this point. So I think the development of the Iraqi forces is still very much a work in progress.
MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, briefly, what's the impact of all this fighting on the civilians there?
MICHAEL GORDON: The ultimate goal is to create this safe zone. And this wall that's being built is being built probably as we speak. Every night, they lay down a new kind of concrete t-wall that's about three meters long.
And they're laying hundreds of them to try to wall -- not to keep the people in the south hemmed in, but to keep the militias to the north from infiltrating south. And this is going to be a long process.
The vision is that, at the end of this process, the militias won't be able to get into the southern area. The government of Iraq will pump in services. It will become sort of like West Berlin and East Berlin, and West Berlin will be the southern area.
Unfortunately, it's really a long way away from that. Every night, there's fighting along this kind of wall that's being built and the militias try to stop that with IEDs, including a lot of EFPs, which is a very lethal type of IED made by Iran.
And within this area itself, the civilians are very often caught in the crossfire. When the Iraqi troops respond to the militia attacks, they often unleash a barrage of fire. It's their style of fighting; it's not always precision fire. Sometimes civilians are hit by that.
And the government of Iraq has yet to really move into this area and begin to restore the services, the electricity, to deal with the trash issue.
And so, really, the efforts that I saw that were going on, trash pickup, some dispersal of humanitarian aid, some medical assistance, were really primarily organized by the American military much more so than the government of Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you said, it sounds like there's a long way to go. Michael Gordon of the New York Times, thank you.MICHAEL GORDON: OK, thank you.