Thousands of Shiites Protest U.S. Occupation in Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: Ed Wong, welcome back.
We understand that the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall went pretty unremarked in the city itself, but it was quite different in the city of Najaf to the south.
EDWARD WONG, New York Times: That’s right. Today in Najaf, there were tens of thousands, at least, of people marching in support of Muqtada al-Sadr’s call to end the American occupation.
Mr. Sadr put out a statement yesterday criticizing the Americans, and then he called for thousands of people to come to Najaf. There were some estimates that there might be as many as half a million people there, and basically they walked through the streets carrying Iraqi flags and telling the Americans to leave.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ed, U.S. and Iraqi officials had believed that Sadr was telling his Mahdi Army to lie low during the new Baghdad security push. What do they think he’s up to now?
EDWARD WONG: Well, it’s still unclear, because no one knows where Sadr is and no one knows what his true motivations are. A few weeks ago, the U.S. was telling us that they believed he was in Iran.
Today, I spoke to one officer who didn’t want to say where they thought he was. And Sadr’s own office isn’t telling us, either.
So we can only look at what’s going on, on the surface, and try and guess, you know, make a guess as to his intentions. What we’re seeing is a huge protest in Najaf, and the protest isn’t violent. There were not people taking up arms or shooting in the air during this march.
Instead, it was very peaceful. It was very well-disciplined. And so we can only guess that, at this current time, Sadr is still content with playing his role as politician. He might have elements that are carrying on violence, but on the surface he wants to remain a politician.
Fighting in Diwaniya
MARGARET WARNER: But now, isn't his Mahdi Army fighting the U.S.-led forces in Diwaniya?
EDWARD WONG: That's correct. There has been battles going on for three, four days now, starting Friday in Diwaniya. And basically what had happened was the U.S. and the Iraqi army decided to seal off certain neighborhoods in Diwaniya at the request of the governor and the provincial council.
They were saying that there were too many militiamen there, there were lots of killings, lots of robberies, lots of abductions. And we're hearing that residents of Diwaniya were also sick of this. They also wanted some action against these militiamen.
Now, it's unclear whether these cells in Diwaniya are being controlled by Sadr, whether they actually answer to him, or whether they're being controlled by other commanders out there in the field. Yesterday, Sadr issued a statement basically telling the Mahdi Army cells in Diwaniya to stop fighting with the Iraqi army soldiers there. But so far, no one has listened to that; the fighting is still going on.
Security push in Baghdad
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there's been a big -- there is a big debate here in Washington about whether the new security push in Baghdad is really making life better there. You've done an analysis, really looking at the numbers. What have you found?
EDWARD WONG: Well, there's no clear picture right now on what's going on with the surge. Basically, the picture is still one of massive violence throughout large parts of Iraq.
In Baghdad specifically, what we've seen is there is a certain type of violence, which is basically execution-style killings dropping, according to stats from the American military. The military says that these types of killings dropped by 26 percent from February to March.
But at the same time, they stated overall Iraqi casualty numbers have not dropped, either in Baghdad or in the country as a whole, mostly because there are lots of devastating car bombings and suicide bombings throughout the capital and throughout Iraq.
We've seen a lot of the violence push out to other parts of Iraq. There's been chlorine gas bombs in parts of Anbar province, for example. Militants in Diyala province have been burning down homes and driving Sunnis and Shiites from neighborhoods.
And then we saw a massive truck bombing in Tall Afar last month that killed at least 152 people. And some American commanders in neighborhoods in Baghdad say that they're starting to see some signs of the sectarian killings creeping back up again.
Spike in Baghdad casualties
MARGARET WARNER: And then what about during these seven weeks of the so-called surge, what about for U.S. troops?
EDWARD WONG: The casualties of U.S. troops in Baghdad have spiked. They're double what they -- in the last seven weeks, they've been double what they were in the seven weeks before that.
Partly we think that that's because there are more U.S. troops here in Baghdad, and they're exposing themselves more. They're being put out on more patrols. They're doing more foot patrols, more vehicle patrols. They're supposed to get out there into the streets, try and provide an air of security to the Iraqis.
And also insurgents may have decided to target them more in Baghdad because they know that this has become the main effort of the U.S. military.
We've seen troop casualties or fatalities drop in some other parts of Iraq, such as Anbar province. So, overall in Iraq, the fatality numbers have stayed roughly the same.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you went last week out to one of these outposts in Baghdad, went out on patrol with one of these units. What did you find, in terms of the interactions between them and the Iraqi population?
EDWARD WONG: I went out on several foot patrols with both Kurdish units and American units when I was out at this outpost, and it was interesting, because what struck me was that a lot of the tactics that they were doing now were tried back in 2003 and in early 2004.
I mean, back then, you couldn't go anywhere in Baghdad without encountering American convoys, without seeing American soldiers on the corners. They were everywhere throughout the city. It definitely felt like an occupied city at that point.
Then, the American military started pulling back into these big bases, and that was when sectarian violence really exploded. And now they're trying to get back out into the neighborhoods again.
So I watched these American soldiers talking to families, trying to go into living rooms, gather intelligence from the families. And in many cases, it seemed a little bit awkward to me. There was this disconnect, I think, partly because of language, partly because the soldiers walked in with so many weapons and so much armor.
And here you have these Iraqi families there who were finishing dinner or trying to settle in for the night. These soldiers come in. They asked them about activity in the neighborhoods. And then the families looked a little nervous, and then the soldiers would leave.
Paying the price for helping
MARGARET WARNER: You also wrote last week about one Sunni woman who did turn to the U.S. forces for help and paid a price.
EDWARD WONG: That's right. It was a woman I had met named Suaada Saadoun. And I had met her when she had called some Kurdish soldiers for help, because she was being evicted from her home by two Shiite men who claimed they were from the ministry of finance.
And she had called both the Americans and the Kurds that afternoon. They had come, arrested the two men, said that these were most likely fake papers that the men were holding and then taking the men away to a detention center.
But the next day, the woman was gunned down in a marketplace. And then her family did eventually end up moving out of that home the morning after her death.
So, in a way, whatever militia was operating in that neighborhood, it was clearly a Shiite militia who had done their job in getting this family to move.
And that's still happening throughout Baghdad, this displacement based on sectarian identity. It's been one of the biggest problems for the Americans and for many Iraqis during this civil war. And we're seeing Americans trying to control it, but it's very, very difficult to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ed Wong of the New York Times, thanks so much.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks, Margaret.