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U.S. Forces Launch Airstrikes as Fighting Flares in Basra, Baghdad

U.S. forces launched airstrikes Friday in Basra, joining Iraqi forces in an effort to quell Shiite militia fighting in both the southern port city and in parts of Baghdad. New York Times reporter James Glanz provides an update on the latest developments from Baghdad.

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    Now, our on-the-ground update on Iraq. It comes from James Glanz, the New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad. Judy Woodruff talked with him earlier this evening.


    James Glanz, thank you for joining us. First to Basra. Tell us, what is the extent of U.S. involvement there?

  • JAMES GLANZ, The New York Times:

    Well, we just learned today, Judy, that U.S. warplanes have conducted air strikes on Basra. That's the first U.S. involvement, direct U.S. involvement in the fighting that we've learned of.

    We knew previously that what the Americans called a quick reaction force was standing by in case the Iraqi army and police units needed help and that air cover would be available. This is the first time we've heard that they used it.


    Where does this leave the Shiite militias in Basra?


    You know, the relations between the Shiite militias in Basra is an extremely complicated thing. There are several, all vying for control of neighborhoods and various sectors, for example, the oil-electricity sector in Basra.

    The focus of this operation has been, in fact, on the ground, against the Mahdi Army. That's the armed wing of the political movement led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

    American and Iraqi officials have said that they didn't design this assault that way. But, you know, they were just looking for criminals in Basra, criminals who wouldn't lay down their arms. But it turns out that most of the fighting involves the Mahdi Army.


    And why did the U.S. get involved?


    Well, it's really an Iraqi operation, since that they're the ones who are leading the fighting. They're the ones apparently who decided to go into Basra.

    But, you know, all along the United States has been training Iraqi security forces so that one day they can take over the streets of their country and perhaps allow American troops to go home.

    Meanwhile, in most operations, American troops have either backed up Iraqi units in major operations, and often they've taken the lead. In this case, they say they've been hanging back but now, of course, getting involved in the fight.


    The prime minister, Maliki, had imposed a deadline on these Shiite militias. What happened to that?


    To be honest, it's really hard to know what to make of the deadline. The last we heard, it had probably been extended. Communications from the prime minister's office have never been extremely smooth, let's say.

    But, you know, it's an odd situation. I mean, first, they mounted the offensive. Then it didn't go so well. Then we heard that there was some kind of ultimatum or a time limit for the militiamen to lay down their arms.

    And what's really happening right now is a bit of a stalemate down there, everybody trying to figure out the situation.


    And, James, what's the latest in Baghdad where you are? We know there was another attack on the Green Zone today.


    Well, there have been multiple rocket and possibly mortar attacks on the Green Zone. And that's very easy for us to verify, because the whole city has been rattled today, as it has repeatedly in the past several days by these rocket attacks.

    The death toll today, I think, was one. And we know that in the past week at least two Americans have died prior to today in these attacks.


    And what can you tell us about the U.S. involvement there in Baghdad, especially around Sadr City?


    We have confirmation from the Americans today that at least one American helicopter conducted a strike in Sadr City, hitting what the American officials who told us about this called criminals.

    Iraqi police officials inside Sadr City say there was an additional strike involving possibly an American plane. Iraqi officials are saying 14 dead in those strikes; the official American count right now is five.


    And tell us, with Baghdad under a curfew, with the situation as it is in the Green Zone, what's it like being in Baghdad right now?


    It's much more tense than it has been in recent weeks and months. As you know, in the wake of the American troop increase and other developments, for example, a cease-fire that was called by the founder of the Mahdi Army, the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, things had been improving on the streets. We felt, if not relaxed, let's say a relative calm in Baghdad over the last months.

    That has changed, at least on the level of just a gut feeling. It feels much more tense on the streets. You see militia members walking around now, looking kind of menacing, when you didn't see that for a while.

    And in general, just it doesn't seem as much a sort of happy place that it had been recently. We're not back to where we were, let's say, at the end of 2006 when, you know, there was enormously more violence than there is now. But, clearly, we're at least at a pause in what had been improving security situation of Baghdad.


    What does this tell us about how much control the cleric, al-Sadr, has over these militias?


    I think that remains an open question. I mean, I know American commanders have been debating that since the time of General Casey, who preceded the current top American general in Iraq, General Petraeus.

    Back in those days, they really felt that Muqtada al-Sadr really controlled most of the militia. And when things went awry, it was because he'd ordered it. Now there's a different feeling, that there are rogue elements, there are elements that may be controlled and trained by Iran that aren't completely under his command.

    He's called this cease-fire, but he left a loophole for his fighters to defend themselves if attacked. And they're obviously taking advantage of that.

    At the same time, he's issued statements in recent days asking for all of these things, for example, the problems in Basra to be resolved by peaceful means.

    So I think he's playing it both ways. He's very ambiguous. And I honestly don't think that either the Americans or the Iraqi government have figured out what he really wants to do.


    James Glanz with the New York Times, thank you very much.