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Deadly Assault in Karbala, Iraq

Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi police officers were killed in an overnight firefight with Shiite Muslims in the holy city of Karbala. Ray Suarez speaks with Newsweek correspondent Christian Caryl from Karbala about the rising religious tensions in that central Iraqi city.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, to the deadly clash involving U.S. Soldiers in Karbala, Iraq. I talked earlier today with Christian Caryl of Newsweek. And welcome to the program.

    Has information emerged from Karbala in the hours since this attack on just what happened, why these two sides ended up in a gun battle?

  • CHRISTIAN CARYL:

    We have been hearing a lot of rumors and very few hard facts partly because there was a dearth of Western correspondents on the ground there when that happened. But the coalition came out today and gave a very, very brief news conference about the events in Karbala last night.

    That briefing given by the coalition lasted all of four minutes which suggests that they are not terribly eager to provide lots of details. This is a latest development in a long series of events that illustrate just how tension has been ratcheting up between the coalition and the forces led by Shiite firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a very prominent Shia leader here in Baghdad.

    Sadr, as you probably heard he has really been challenging the coalition lately with very incendiary actions. Last week, for example, he declared an Islamic state that he proclaimed to be more legitimate than the American appointed Governing Council here in Baghdad.

    What happened in this particular case was that some men were congregating in a place on the edge of Karbala. It was after curfew — a combined American-Iraqi patrol — American soldiers and Iraqi police went there to find out who these guys were and there was a gun battle.

    It's come out in the course of the day that the battle took place near a mosque that is under the supervision of a cleric who seems to be close to al-Sadr, but it's a little hard to tell because nobody really seems to know much about this guy.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Until this firefight what was the security situation like in Karbala? Was there a curfew? Was there a general American control of streets during the overnight hours?

  • CHRISTIAN CARYL:

    Karbala and Najaf are both very, very holy cities to Iraq Shiites.

    And until now coalition forces have been careful to keep out of the center of both of those cities and to cede security control over them to forces local to the reigning Shia clerics in both of those places. Now, this has always been kind of a balancing act.

    You might remember when a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Hakim, was killed in a car bombing a few weeks ago. Many Shiites criticized the coalition for not providing Hakim's followers with property security. Now, of course, there's a tension here between you know not doing enough and doing too much.

    Recently, we have seen a lot of these Shia organizations arming themselves again after they had surrendered some of their weapons earlier this year and apparently what happened in this case was — in this particular case, was that these men, who were involved with this particular cleric, didn't want to be disarmed. There have been a couple of events recently. Spanish troops, for example, in Karbala ran into a fight a couple of days ago when they tried to disarm one of these Shiite militias, so just general there seems to be an increasing problem

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    In the weeks after the president proclaimed the end of active hostilities, major combat operations, there was an assumption that really the American forces were going to have their hands full in heavily Sunni areas and that heavily Shiite areas were going to be a little bit easier to keep an eye on. Is this a disturbing development for that reason?

  • CHRISTIAN CARYL:

    Until now probably one of the most underreported stories of the whole postwar situation in Iraq has been just how quiet the Shiite areas have been generally speaking. I remember a few weeks ago talking to some gentlemen in a Shia dominated town not far from Baghdad and they were all saying surprisingly complimentary things about the Americans, and when I asked why, they said it's because our relatives in are the mass graves.

    In other words, the Americans came in, they took out Saddam, and so there are a lot of Shia who are willing to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt even though they don't particularly like the occupation any more than other Iraqis do.

    Now, if this tension that we're beginning to see between Sadr's forces and the coalition increase, it could really become a serious problem, especially for the American forces here in Iraq, because until now American forces have been able to concentrate on the really, really dangerous areas of the Sunni Triangle, which is where almost all the attacks that you have heard about have really been taking place. If Sadr can generate enough ill will among the Shia population of Iraq, if he can provoke the Americans to killing his people and if he can trigger an escalating spiral of violence, that could become extremely dangerous for the coalition.

    Fortunately, so far, it doesn't look as though Sadr has really been generating a lot of grassroots support among Shia in general here in Iraq. Like I say, if he can begin to ratchet up the tension, that could certainly change and it would be a very, very nasty development indeed.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, had there ever been a call from Muqtada al-Sadr for the cleric for armed confrontation or had it been — so far his public speeches confined to the incendiary religious and political rhetoric?

  • CHRISTIAN CARYL:

    Well, you know, Sadr made a name for himself really quite earlier in this thing by calling upon Iraqis to resist the American occupation. As near as I can tell, he has been rather ambiguous about what he has meant by that resistance.

    He is not — he doesn't seem to have openly called upon his followers to go out and kill Americans but unlike some of the other major Shiite clerics here in Iraq, he has never said that you know, well, we should wait and see; we don't like the occupation but we should give the Americans the benefit of the doubt. Sadr is the one major figure who has never said that. He has always said the Americans should be resisted. He has always said that, you know, the occupation is illegitimate and he has been very strong for example in condemning the governing council which is this government appointed by the occupation forces.

    So — it's — it remains to be seen how far this can go but Sadr has certainly been far more aggressive than anyone else in the Shia community here in calling for opposition to the occupation.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Newsweek's Christian Caryl joining us from Baghdad. Thanks a lot.

  • CHRISTIAN CARYL:

    My pleasure.

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