JIM LEHRER: The latest violence in Iraq: We begin with a report from John Burns of the New York Times in Baghdad. Terence Smith talked with him this evening by phone.
TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, thank you very much for joining us. We have reports of clashes around the country, and even in Baghdad. Tell us what the latest is.
JOHN BURNS: Well, the latest tonight is that there has been a resumption of mortar and rocket fire in the neighborhood from which I'm speaking, the Palestine Sheraton Hotel.
That's not so unusual. But taking into context everything else we've seen in the last few days, I'd have to say there's been a considerable turn for the worse. In the last 24 hours, we've seen major eruptions of fighting in Sadr City, the Shiite slum on the northeast outskirts of Baghdad, and the holy city of Najaf, which Americans will remember were the centers of the uprising that occurred in April which brought the American occupation to an extremely seemly perilous fate.
There was also today, fighting in Basra involving British troops. There were at least 15 American soldiers wounded today. I know that figure to be true because I saw them loaded on air ambulances, helicopters, Black Hawks landing in the green zone center of Baghdad -- this after a lull, at least as far as American troops are concerned that had lasted through a good deal of July and has led to hopes that the fighting, at least for the Americans, was going to recede somewhat.
Not for the Iraqis the attacks are ever more against Iraqi civilians. But as of tonight I'd have to say that the indicators are once more pointing towards the dark and not towards the light.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a pattern to this fighting? Do the attacks seem coordinated? Are they coming mostly, for example, from the Shiite militia?
JOHN BURNS: They are indeed. Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric, who stalked across the front pages and television news of America and the world in March and April, was the man who triggered today's attacks.
There doesn't seem to be much doubt that it was an offensive by his own Mahdi army-- the army of God-- that a new and fairly numerous, large force that he has deployed in Sadr City, that is to say the slum outside Baghdad and Najaf, and in Basra. Now he had been ostensibly abiding by the series of ceasefires that had been arranged with the American and Iraqi authorities here in the period of April and May.
They were very tenuous, they were never properly and completely observed. And he is a very volatile and unpredictable man. It seems that his people-- according to the American military account-- his forces has attacked a police station in Najaf sometime around the small hours of Thursday morning, Iraq time, that Iraqi police and civil defense mustered to defend the police station.
Marines, who have recently taken over in that area, they rushed to the assistance of the Iraqis. There was a major firefight in which one American soldier was killed, at least 700 American soldiers wounded and quite a number of Sadr's people were also killed, as well as Iraqi civilians, as always.
And this then spread rather quickly north and south to Sadr city and to Basra. As of tonight it seems that that has been foiled, but from what we are hearing from Sadr City there is a severe risk that this will re-ignite on Friday morning.
TERENCE SMITH: Given all this fighting, what is the level of control of the Iraqi interim government? How much of the country can they be said fairly to control?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the most severe critics of Allawi, the new prime minister, have said that he looks ever more like Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan who has often been described as the mayor of Kabul, controlling Kabul and not Najaf. Mr. Karzai only has 10,000 American troops. Mr. Allawi is backed by a hundred and thirty-five or a hundred and forty thousand American troops.
That gives him a much bigger stick to wield, but there are very large areas of this country which clearly are not under the government's control, including a whole range of cities north, west and south of Baghdad, and I think this does not bode at all well for the future.
Your listeners -- your viewers will of course know that Fallujah is completely out of American or Iraqi government control. That's the city 35 miles west of Baghdad which is in the epicenter of the Sunni Muslim uprising against the American occupation.
And I could name at least five other cities that are clearly marked under government or American control, and they include fairly large cities like Baquba and samara north of Baghdad; Najaf to the South; and there are major questions about other cities in the South as well, including Kut. So the situation is very tenuous indeed, and it's very difficult to see how any real stability is going to be brought out of this.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, John Burns of the New York Times, thank you very much for bringing us up to date on what is obviously a very fast-moving situation. Thank you, John.
JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.