TERENCE SMITH: Rajav, welcome to the broadcast. Tell us the latest, if you, will in these on-again, off-again negotiations with the Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the latest is just a few minutes before midnight local time here, Muqtada al-Sadr's office in Najaf released a hand-written but unsigned letter that it said was from the rebellious cleric in which he asked his followers to hand over the keys to that sacred Imam Ali Shrine, vacate it so that it won't be invaded by infidels.
This was the latest in a back-and-forth sire risk of statements all day. If you'll recall on Wednesday, Sadr issued a very conciliatory message to a national conference here, pledging to disband his militia, vacate the shrine and participate in the political process in a non-violent way. But today things have been swinging wildly become and forth, an indication perhaps of Sadr's mercurial tendencies.
Earlier in the day his militiamen fired mortars at a police station in Najaf, killing seven people and then issued a statement in which he called on his supporters to prepare for martyrdom and begin defensive preparations around the shrine, all this occurring in Najaf as the interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, in Baghdad said that Sadr had one final chance, issued a final call to Sadr to comply with the terms of the government's demands for a peaceful resolution to this crisis.
And Allawi, mindful of the sort of back-and-forth game and the conflicting statement, called on Sadr to issue a clear, definitive statement of what he intends to do, and Allawi warned that military action using Iraqi and U.S. forces to clear the shrine of Sadr's militiamen would be imminent if there was not a satisfactory response from Sadr.
TERENCE SMITH: Are the authorities in Baghdad accepting this handwritten but unsigned letter as that definitive statement?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: No immediate word from the authorities here, but they've been pretty clear they want something more than that.
The leader of the national conference's delegation down to Najaf a few days ago spoke to reporters a little while ago and said what he wants to see is a televised statement from Sadr: Sadr in front of a camera in his own words stating what he intends to do.
TERENCE SMITH: You were with that delegation that went down to Najaf. I guess you got a first-hand look at what might be involved in trying to take that shrine militarily.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. And it would be a very complicated endeavor, from my perspective. I drove in with this delegation, driving through the abandoned battle-scarred streets of Najaf, where we saw hundreds of young men with all manner of weaponry, from assault rifles to rocket-propelled grenades, to young boys just clutching simple hand grenades in their hands.
The neighborhood around the shrine is a labyrinthing series of alleys, a very, very hostile, urban environment in which to fight. The interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has pledged that the frontline forces to liberate the shrine would be Iraqi army troops. This is a very steep challenge for them. As I walk through this area, I saw, you know, numerous alleyways, doorways, other crevasses in which people could hide and many of them were filled with young men with weapons.
It just poses that sort of nightmare urban combat scenario, and all of this taking place in an environment where they have to protect the shrine. It's as if Sadr and his followers have taken the building hostage and utmost care will have to be taken if Allawi does not want to inflame the country's majority Shiites.
Utmost care will have to be taken to avoid any sort of physical damage to that structure.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv, we've been hearing reports this evening of explosions in Najaf. Is this the assault? Are these explosions related to that?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: What we hear is not the final assault. What is taking place there over the past couple of days has been an increasingly tightening U.S. military cordon.
They've been pushing in closer and closer to the shrine, trying clear neighborhoods of militiamen. And so we're seeing running firefights, attacks involving U.S. heavy armor, militiamen firing back with rocket-propelled grenades. And what is also happening is that the militiamen are firing mortars from very close to the shrine.
When I was in that shrine compound for three hours this week, I could hear mortars being launched from literally just maybe a dozen or so yards away, right outside the walls. And what the Americans are doing now is they're responding.
They're picking up the areas in which those mortars are being fired from with their radars, and they're responding with artillery, coming pretty close to the shrine but saying all the while that they're taking great pains to avoid striking anything in the shrine.
TERENCE SMITH: So it may not be the final assault but is very much a battle situation?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It is. Witnesses there describe intense combat taking place this evening. An AC-130 Specter Gunship is hovering over the city. U.S. attack helicopters are buzzing over. There's a lot of intense combat taking place.
This is perhaps the foreshadowing of what we might see in a final assault, but it almost certainly will be an awful lot more intense than this.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, in Baghdad, I gather that there has been fighting. There was a mortar attack in the green zone. What's the situation there?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, sort two fronts here in Baghdad. There was a mortar attack on the green zone, a mortar actually fell on the republican palace that used to be the former headquarters of the occupation authority.
It now holds the U.S. Embassy's main office annex. It's where Ambassador John Negroponte and hundreds of Americans work. A mortar shell pierced the roof, injuring two Americans working for the embassy. It's not at all clear who shot that.
In many cases those mortars are fired by Sunni insurgents, and the mortars fired on the green zone are a regular occurrence. On the other side of Baghdad in Sadr City, there have been ongoing clashes between Shia militiamen loyal to Sadr and U.S. forces.
TERENCE SMITH: All this comes in the wake of this national conference in which they did appoint an interim council to work with the government. What's been the Iraqi reaction to that?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the reaction here has been a bit muted. Many of these names are not household names in Iraq. There's a slate of candidates that one was organized by major political parties, parties that had spent years opposing Saddam Hussein's government in exile. So these aren't parties with a whole lot of members who have a lot of, shall we say, street recognition here. So this slate comprises a lot of people who have yet to make a reputation for themselves. So Iraqis are sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude.
The conclusion of that four-day conference last night devolved into bedlam as political independence claimed that they were -- they had not been give an fair hearing, that their efforts to put forth a slate of candidates was sabotaged by the parties.
It looked a bit chaotic, but it was also, you know, this first exercise in democracy, and a number of candidates who were on the losing side came out and said, well, at least one good thing about this is that we've been able to speak our minds and this is something that would have never happened here during 35 years of Baath Party rule.
TERENCE SMITH: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you very much for filling us in.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure to talk to you.