MARGARET WARNER: Edward Wong, welcome. Thanks for being with us.
There have been two separate, very lethal attacks leaving 20 Marines dead in Anbar Province in the last 48 hours. What's going on there?
EDWARD WONG: Anbar Province has always been one of the hardest territories for the American troops to control in all of Iraq. It's basically the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency. And there was a lot of support among the tribes out there for Saddam Hussein and his regime when that was in power.
Basically, during the entire occupation, the Americans have had a hard time controlling the area. So the last 48 hours we've seen two tremendous attacks out there. The latest one was the -- was one where a roadside bomb explosion killed fourteen Marines and an interpreter, which is one of the single most devastating attacks in recent memory here in Iraq.
And then yesterday we saw an attack where several Marine snipers -- a half dozen Marine snipers -- were out on foot in two separate patrols and they were ambushed and attacked by insurgents. And basically it looks like the area of Haditha, around the town of Haditha, which is right on the Euphrates River, is becoming one of the big hot spots in Anbar alongside places such as Fallujah and Ramadi.
MARGARET WARNER: There were some questions in the Pentagon briefing today about whether the Marine vehicles, these amphibious assault vehicles, are more lightly armored or less heavily armored than, say, the Army Bradley fighting vehicle. What can you tell us about that?
EDWARD WONG: The Marines have always had a problem with armoring their vehicles. I spent some time with Marine troops in various parts of Iraq, and one of the common complaints you hear about them is that they often get hand-me-downs from the Army. The Marines get a smaller budget, operating budget, than the Army does, significantly smaller. And they often complain about their equipment and about their vehicles.
MARGARET WARNER: And then when we talk about the attack on Monday on the Marines that were on foot, where six Marines died, a group called Ansar al-Sunna has claimed responsibility. What do you know about them?
EDWARD WONG: Ansar al-Sunna is one of the most militant groups here in Iraq, and basically it's a group that formed after another Jihadist group called Ansar al-Islam was broken up by the Americans and by the Kurds in northern Iraq during the invasion.
Basically, Ansar al-Sunna regrouped -- were remnants of that group that ended up regrouping and then recruiting other members from Anbar Province and from places to the west and to the north of Baghdad.
And so that group is now carrying out a lot of attacks. It's carrying out a lot of attacks on Iraqi forces in Baghdad in the North and the West. And here, we're seeing them carrying out a fairly vicious attack on American forces and basically boasting of the role that they played here.
MARGARET WARNER: Do military -- U.S. military officials you talked to think the fact that two of these attacks have been pulled off in the last 48 hours, does that suggest to them and to you that the insurgency out there is becoming more effective and more sophisticated and/or is it that the Marines and other U.S. troops are now putting more pressure on them?
EDWARD WONG: I think it's hard just to say from a pattern of over 48 hours whether the insurgency is becoming more sophisticated. I think over a length of time several commanders here have told us that they believe the insurgency has been getting more efficient and has been getting more sophisticated, although they're uncertain whether it's growing in size. But they do believe that the way the insurgents are mounting attacks is more effective.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a little more about the U.S. activity now out in Anbar Province, because last spring we saw Marines go in and they'd sort of clear out a nest in one town. But then they would acknowledge to reporters they didn't really have the forces to maintain a presence there, so they retreat or withdraw.
Now, we hear reports that actually a new base is being built out there. Is there a more concerted effort to really shut down the insurgent network in that part of the country, and if so, why?
EDWARD WONG: The base that you're talking about is located in a town, which is on the Euphrates River north of Haditha, and it is one of the latest attempts by the American military to try and shut down a through-line of insurgents coming in from what they believe Syria and then moving onward to Baghdad and other places.
Now, over the last several months, we've seen the Americans try several operations in this area, operations that they name after a sharp object -- Operation Sword, Operation Spear, Operation Scimitar -- and each of these has targeted a specific area along the Euphrates River Valley where they've tried to basically surround villages, surround towns, do search operations and try and shut down these networks, networks of both foreign fighters as well as the homegrown Iraqi cells that are smuggling those fighters in.
I don't think the Americans believe that the foreign fighters form the bulk of the insurgents by any means, but they're believed to form a large part of the suicide bomber brigades that carry out a lot of the most devastating attacks in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: And now, turning to the killing of an American freelance journalist down in Basra, Steven Vincent. What can you tell us about that?
EDWARD WONG: Steven Vincent was a man who was working in Basra for several months on a book about Basra and also writing articles about the Shiite religious parties down there. What we hear is that he and his interpreter were picked up in a police vehicle yesterday evening in downtown Basra and then later his body was found north of the city center riddled with bullets. His hands were tied and he had apparently been -- there apparently had been a blind cloth put over his eyes at one point.
When his body was taken to the morgue, a reporter who works for us in Basra looked at it and said that there were bruises on his face and on his right shoulder, which showed that he might have been tortured or abused by the people who kidnapped him.
Witnesses at the scene told us that the people who took him into the car were wearing police uniforms at the time. Now, his interpreter is apparently alive, although she was shot also, and she's undergoing treatment at a hospital right now.
MARGARET WARNER: I understand that you knew him. What was he working on? What was he writing that might have made him the target?
EDWARD WONG: Steven Vincent was working on a series of stories that he was doing for various publications down in Basra where he was trying to talk about the rise of conservative Shiite Islam, very conservative Islam, and about the pitfalls of that. And he was basically criticizing the British military down there and implicitly the American administration for not dampening this rise in fundamentalism and pushing their brand of democracy, but rather instead allowing religious leaders to take control across the South.
And he was basically writing about the fact that Iraqi security forces, he believes, had been infiltrated by militia who were loyal to these religious leaders and were in fact sent on carrying out personal vendettas in Basra, such as assassinating Baath Party officials. So he wrote this most recently in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, and it was two days later that he was kidnapped and his body was found.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally, Ed, you, I know, have been in Basra and have written from Basra yourself. We have thought of British-occupied Basra as one of the more stable cities in Iraq. Is that less so than it used to be? Was that a mistaken impression? Are things less stable there?
EDWARD WONG: What you're seeing down there is basically a struggle for power among various Shiite parties. But it's not a struggle that's breaking out in open attacks or open warfare out on the street. It's a political struggle. And you also see -- what you see are also fascinations of figures like Sunni clerics and Sunni leaders and Baath Party officials.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ed Wong of the New York Times, thanks for being with us.
EDWARD WONG: Great, thanks a lot.