RAY SUAREZ: John Burns welcome. Now that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is back in Iraq, what does he have planned?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the end game in Najaf is getting evermore complicated and in some respects evermore dangerous. Tonight, there's every sign that the United States intends to try and bring the siege of the shrine to a conclusion before Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani reaches Najaf because if they do not bring it to conclusion, if Iraqi troops do not effectively control the shrine by the time that the Grand Ayatollah arises, then there will be a very complicated situation because he has summoned, as you know, Shiites from across Iraq to converge on Najaf, on the shrine beginning tomorrow to be led by him.
And it seems highly unlikely that that could occur under American guns and to reverse that assumption, if American guns, tanks and air power were being used in the vicinity of the shrine tomorrow, Thursday, as they have been today, and there were large numbers of Iraqi Shiites attempting to reach that shrine, the situation could reach a very critical point indeed.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the stated reason for the Sistani march is to bring an end to the siege in Najaf. Would American forces have a problem with standing down if he tried to bring it to an end that way?
JOHN BURNS: You know, there's something crucial we do not know. There's much we don't know about Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his intentions.
What we do not know is was his absence in London these last three weeks for an angioplasty operation, a heart operation, which seems to have been genuine but was it timed so that he would not be out of the country for precisely the period when the United States was mounting a major military operation to regain control of the old city of Najaf and the shrine?
It seems to me there has to be a suspension of critical faculties to believe that there is no connection there. But the question is: Did he do that knowing the operation was coming? Did the United States contrive that he would leave because there is no doubt that Sistani would like to see Sadr's military power removed from Najaf, indeed crushed.
And what assurances does the United States have now that it is within literally tens of meters of gaining control of that shrine that Sistani will if you will stick with them? The nightmare scenario would be if he now presents himself as an ally of Sadr's now mostly disarmed followers in reclaiming the shrine at the last minute from American attack. We simply don't know and only time and perhaps tomorrow will tell.
RAY SUAREZ: Has the still quite young Iraqi government made its wishes known on the movements of the Ayatollah and the use of American force around Najaf?
JOHN BURNS: Well, they have been very tough indeed in their statements of the last 72 hours and as of tonight, encouragingly, Prime Minister Allawi has sent a delegation from his own government, down to Basra, ostensibly to meet with Sistani.
That probably will happen either tonight or tomorrow morning in the shape of an increasingly important junior minister in the government, Kasim Daoud, who seems to have become Allawi's right-hand man for negotiations. So clearly they're trying to work out something with him. What that is we don't know. But what we do know is that in the last few hours in Najaf, the intensification of the attack on the shrine area has reached really quite critical proportions.
Our own correspondent today, very experienced correspondent, Dexter Filkins, told me that in many years of covering wars and armed confrontations, he had never felt quite so much at hazard as he did while stationed immediately opposite the gates of the shrine today with American tanks firing down the streets immediately around him, snipers shooting at people crossing the ground in front of the shrine -- we would imagine, we would hope, shooting at people that have been identified as Sadr's supporters, armed supporters, we are not sure of that but one would presume that would be the case, and air power being used to drop 500 bombs, very close to the shrine. Clearly there was a great haste in these last hours to try and close out the occupation of the shrine.
And it could be that perhaps Sistani and the Americans are working either in explicit or understood cooperation; that is to say, the American objective will be to get Sadr and his armed people out of the shrine. Having recovered the shrine and presumably having put Iraqi troops immediately around it, they can then return the shrine to Sistani, its rightful, if you will, keeper, and do it through the auspices of the new Allawi government. That would be seen to be something of a victory.
But Sadr, even in military defeat, would emerge from this in some ways strengthened. He has lost several hundred fighters. It is not clear he won't himself be arrested. It is not clear where he is. He seems to have fled the shrine and fled the immediate area of the shrine. But if he emerges from this a free man and manages to get himself back to Sadr City and is not arrested, he will of course have enhanced his stature among his constituency, the impoverished Shiite underclass.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a high risk for American forces in launching such intense operations around the religious landmark that is revered by more than 100 million Shias around the world?
JOHN BURNS: Very high risk. There has been some rather minimal damage to the shrine. Some of it, the American forces say inflicted by Sadr forces inside the shrine firing mortars and rockets over the walls at the Americans.
They've actually shown us videos of that occurring. And there seems little doubt to say that that has happened but it also seems to be little doubt that some American fire has hit the outer walls of the shrine. No serious damage but it's very easy to see how this can be exploited against the United States.
And I have to say that if we look - if we pull back from the situation in Najaf, we look at the situation in Fallujah, Ramadi, Najaf, Samara, and I could name a dozen other cities, one gets more and more the impression that the United States is playing, as we say in England, an away match here, and is not at all certain, not only of the crowd, but of the rules by which it's playing. It is dealing with some extremely wily people -- Sistani not least amongst them.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns in Baghdad. Thanks a lot.