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Iraq: Live from Najaf

Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 19, 2004; 10:00 AM

Negotiations over the embattled city of Najaf took a new and complicated turn Thursday when an official of Iraq's interim government issued fresh demands to be met by rebellious Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, accompanied by warnings of an imminent military offensive at the shrine where Sadr's militia is holed up. Meanwhile, the violence continued in Najaf with fighting between U.S. forces and Sadr's Mahdi Army in the vicinity of the of Najaf's main religious shrine as well as a mortar attack by Sadr's insurgents on a Najaf police station that wire services reported claimed at least seven lives.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick was live from Najaf on Thursday, Aug. 19, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the scene in Najaf, the progress of any negotiations and the latest news from Iraq.


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Karl Vick: Greetings once again from Najaf, where a lot has been happening in the last few days, and at a fairly brisk tempo. The events have mostly been political, but some military as well, obviously. The Iraqi politicos and American forces are working closely in tandem to bring this to as close as quickly and cleanly as possible, or at least testing to see if those two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

You've see the latest: Another warning from the Iraqi government that Sadr has only a very short time to make good on his agreement to disarm and slip into the warm embrace of the Iraqi body politic. Meanwhile, I just saw a Harrier jet pound a building a couple of times in downtown Najaf, where Marines and the Cavalry's 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment are holding a line.

And here at Foward Operating Base Hotel, medics have laid out 20-plus stretchers around their little clinic and are standing by to treat a couple dozen Iraqi policement injured when a mortar exploded on the roof of the police station they were guarding, at about 2 o'clock this afternoon.

Questions?

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Firenze, Italy: Today's Italian newspaper, La Reppublica, says that Sadr Moqtada's militia rounded up relatives of Iraqi opponents and threatened to kill these relatives. Apparently the governor of the province, Ali Jaber, resigned a few days ago because his father had been kidnapped by Al-Sadr militia. Jaber was told he would only see his father alive if he resigned. Is any of this true?

Karl Vick: Caio, Firenze.

That lines up in rough terms with my undestanding, tho I think the governor of Najaf is a fellow named Adnan Zurufi. It could be a garble of an another case, in which Mahdi Army are reported to have kidnapped the father of Najaf's chief of police, a demonstrative and somewhat flambouyant fellow who has not only stood firm against the insurgents but rallied officers to re-take the few stations they managed to overrun in the early hours of this crisis, two weeks old today.

The MP captain who was telling me this said there was also a report that the chief's counsin had been taken as well. The chief is still on duty, I believe.

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Camden, N.J.: As there are now reports of intense fighting around the Imam Mosque, what can you tell us about the current situation? Is the mosque damaged? Is anyone leaving? How intense is the fighting? How will such an attack resonate throughout Iraq and the Middle East? Thank you.

Karl Vick: The situation as I undestand it is as follows:

There are U.S. troops, armor and Marines on station about a mile north of the mosque in the cemetery; this is routine and I was just out there. It's a bit quieter than normal, I was told, perhaps because Moqtada is suing for peace and doesn't want to look belligerent, perhaps because the mortars and fire squads are pre-occupied with other targets, namely a few vehicles bogged in the sand in another direction, and taking fire. No casualties, helpon the way, and Apaches providing cover.

Meanwhile, to the south and east, the Cav's 7th Regiment (General Custer's old outfit) has pushed over the last few days to within fairly close to the ring road around the shrine's neighborhood, but not right up to it. The Marines are in there too, having taken a sizeable building complex between Revolutionary Circle and the shrine without a shot fired a couple of nights ago. They continue to hold it but are not moving. There's fire between forces, and the Harrier was dropping its bombs an hour or so ago after being called in by them.

All that said, there really doesn't appear to be any great ramping up of U.S. forces at the moment. People in the mosque are hearing the fire closer than it's been, hearing the ominous warnings of the Iraqi ministers, and fearing the worst. This is a desired effect, I gather.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Good morning. It seems to me that news of the Iraq war, especially coalition casualties, has dropped off the radar scope of the media since the CPA left Bagdad nearly two months ago. July was one of the bloodiest months, in terms of coalition troops killed, and August is on its way to be even bloodier. I'm sure the administration prefers coalition casualties to be downplayed, but the fact that we are currently losing troops just as fast as we were before the transition occured in late June is big news. Didn't the adminstration, and possibly the pentagon, believe that troop casualties would decrease after the transition?

Thanks for all of your work.

Karl Vick: Thanks, and thanks as well for a provocative point. I wasn't aware of this myself -- not having checked the stats lately -- but wonder how much is just the getting-used-to-it syndrome? You know, the subtle almost expectation of bad news, especially the kind that appears in a trickle.

Michael J. Arlen, who first called Vietnam the "Living Room War" often complained that the term was misunderstood. It wasn't meant to describe TV bringing the horrors of war into the living room, from which the American family recoiled in horror. He meant, rather, that the daily drone of body counts and routine coverage made the war a fixture of everyday life, like a piece of furniture.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Karl,
your work and courage is very inspiring.

Does anyone believe that Al-Sadr and his army will blow up what they can of the mosque? Can the Iraqi's really handle this assault on their own?

Karl Vick: Thanks, but plesae be advised I'm probably safer here with the U.S. forces than in Baghdad or most other places in Iraq, where so many reporters and others are trying to work.

The wired shrine reports are out there but more feared than confirmed. I talked with an Iraqi commando the other day who would be in a position to know, and he didn't.

As for whether the Iraqis can handle it on their own: doubtful. But they'd be getting an awful lot of help from the Americans, both in opening the way to the shrine, if it came to that, and in moving in themselves as instructed, I assume, by their U.S. trainers.

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Greensburg, Pa.: What is being done to protect civilians in case of an assault on the mosque?

Karl Vick: I'm not certain of the answer, but assume there'd be some kind of warning before any assault, and presumably some route for one and all to flee. I don't imagine this as a "kill 'em all" mission. They want the Mahdi Army out of the mosque. Presumably they'd leave them a route out.

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Paris, France: Hello,I believe the situation in Najaf is critical and the tension is extreme. Shiites in Iraq represent 60 percent of population. Do you think general embarassment is possible in the future? Thank you.

Karl Vick: Thank you for such an excellently French question.

General embarassment in the future?

So much.

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Washinton, D.C.: Can the insurgents be routed out without harming or desecrating the shrine? Would food and water interdiction be a method?

Karl Vick: I asked the sort of the same question of a Cavalry commander the other day. He made a face, like I wasn't thinking clearly, and summoned up the image of U.S. forces laying physical siege to the holy site while starving out the self-described holy warriors inside.

The thinking on the military side is that the longer this goes on, the harder it is to summon the political will. Public attention is not a permissive environment, as they say. Now, whether that's good or bad depends on how you weigh the importance of perhaps breaking the back of the Mahdi Army as against doing yet further -- perhaps catastrophic -- damage to the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Lots of your answers are sort of qualified as "to the best of my understanding". How to you obtain your information when basically you cannot freely move among the people of Iraq? Is most of your information coming from the U.S. military and how trustworthy is that information?

Karl Vick: Good observation. Part of the qualification is due to the rules a reporter has to abide by if he's embedded; we are forbidden to report on forward operations -- that is, future events -- and we also want to be a bit circumspect besides, mostly so people who know things continue to share them with us. That's just a tension in journalism.

But, yeah, I'm in the military's hind (not hip) pocket. I know what they let me know (but that's a lot more than I expected they'd share) and almost nothing of what the people outside the wire, or on the other side of the Armorex are doing or saying. Only rarely do I get to go out amongst 'em, and even then I'm with these action figures, The American Fighting Men.

I find their information quite trustworthy. Field commanders on down the chain of command depend on facts as a matter of life and death. It's when information flows off base and through the bureaucracy it tends to get spun or so blandly pasteurized as to be of dubious use.

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Chicago, Ill.: Is this the end all conflict in the region? If Sadr fails to hold will the conflict end?

Karl Vick: By no means.

There's still Fallujah, after all. And Samarra. And Baquba. The Sunni Triangle, in other words.

And Zarqawi and Ansar al Islam and ... you get the picture.

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Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Vick:

I'm guessing that there is a method to Sadr's madness. He sues for peace and makes demands while buying time in order to provoke the Iraqi government into attacking him. This way he can say that he accepted their (the Iraqi government's peace) offer, but they were never interested in making peace in the first place. This way he discredits Prime Minister Allawi and Sadr looks like the victim. Do you agree with this assessment?

Karl Vick: If it played out that way, yes. From what I understand, though, the Allawi government is not going along by allowing more time. Bluffs are being called. The feeling seems to be, ultimatums backed by loud noises and steady militia losses got us this far, why stop now?

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Washington D.C.: Is Al Sistani back in Iraq? If so, what's his public position on the Najaf situation?

Karl Vick: Last I heard he was still in London, having some surgery done an an eye after the angioplasty. But an aide said he wanted to get back soon.

His public position is concerned but a bit bland. He wants the fighting and killing to stop but doesn't assign blame.

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Firenze, Italy: What is your guess on level of non-Iraqi participation in Al-Sadr's militia?

Karl Vick: Not very high, by all accounts. The Iraqi government showed off a couple of prisoners the other day -- or threatened to -- but when Najaf residents speak of outsiders they mean Mahdi Army from Baghdad and other cities. Najaf is mostly a Sistani town and has not been sympathetic by and large to Sadr.

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Toronto, Canada: Has a Kurdish battalion been transferred to Najaf to assisst in clearing the mosque of Sadr?

Karl Vick: No. Several battalions are in the area by now, I've been told. The one you're thinking of, formerly known as the 36th, is about half Kurdish. They fought at Fallujah for a while, while other forces refused. I'm writing a piece about the old 36th.

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Woodland Hills, Calif.: What does the new Iraq leadership expect to gain from their American style tactics in Najaf? If they play the tough guy and push Muqtada al-Sadr, don't they run the risk of looking like they are just puppets for the U.S.? This posture seems to me to just bolster the anti-U.S. position. Killing al-Sadr will accomplish what?

Karl Vick: Haven't heard anyone talk about killing the guy, not lately anyway. But the rationale behind a tough play is that it might give the interim government a shot in the arm. Allawi was made PM largely on his security credentials -- here's a guy tough enough to get things done. As someone said to me shortly after I arrived on base, "From what I understand, this government doesn't want to have another Fallujah."

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Reading, Mass.: Is an agreement with Sadr to "disarm and slip into the warm embrace of the Iraqi body politic" a diservice to the Marines who have given up their lives in this battle?

American blood spilled in the name of internal Iraqi politics does not quite jive with the mission of WMD, and links to al Qaeda.

Karl Vick: And the business of the American military should not be nation building. Butwe seem to have made this mess, and appear determined to at least try hard to clean it up.

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Chicago, Ill.: How do you accomplish your reporting there? Are you embedded with the military, if so how far can you stray from them? Where do you get your information? What are your biggest challenges, journalistically, and how do you handle them?

Karl Vick: As an embed, the biggest challenge journalistically is to see the conflict in anything other than military terms. It's important and gratifying to be with the U.S. military, especially when it's on a battlefield as extraordinarily sensitive as this one. But journalists are always captive of their sources, and the dangers implicit in that are amplified by an order of magnitude for embeds. The best part of being a foreign correspondent is hanging with the local folks, and that's just not possible here (and becoming less and less so most other places in Iraq, what with kidnapping threats and other security woes).

That said, I really like these guys -- the troops and the officers, several of whom clearly have that world class candlepower. Plus it's kind of a gas to be in America abroad.

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Springfield, Va.: I have heard that there were large weapons caches found in the cemetery, arms hidden in graves, that sort of thing. How well armed is the Mahdi Army?

Karl Vick: Not terribly well-armed. The biggest thing I've seen taken from the cemetery was a Russian-made rocket launcher that looked like something Marvin the Martian might have pulled out against Yosemite Sam. But almost to the exclusion of all else, the weapons the Americans and IPs are facing here are AK-47s, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Oh, and sniper rifles. There's a real sniper war going on out there.

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Washinton, D.C.: How did the Sadr military group obtain their weapons and how do they replensish the their cache? Thanks.

Karl Vick: I don't have specifics, but this country is, in the words of the outgoing British envoy Jeremy Greenstock, essentially one big ammo dump with borders. Saddam spent much of its oil revenue on wars, and the means to fight them.

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Staunton, Va.: Mr. Vick, excellent work in reporting from Iraq, thanks.

Is Moqtada Sadr against the Iraqi political process because he deems the current interim government a U.S. installed outfit?

Secondly, American critics also look at Ayad Allawi as a CIA-favored and CIA-aligned figure, with much of the interim council seen in the same way. Is this true? And if so, how is this a departure from the U.S.-driven strongman paradigm that the Bush administration has said the U.S. must move away from in order to be a honest broker between liberalization groups and current governments in a greater Mideast democratization movement?

Karl Vick: Yes, that's been his position, and the occupiers must go. Though he seems a malleable fellow when pressed (apologies for the image).

On the Allawi part, there's much in what you say. I suppose exegencies, if that's the word and that's how it's spelled, seemed to demand a firm hand. You do, however, hear Allawi called the New Saddam by some Iraqis, who note for instance that he was photographed emerging from a meeting doing a little raised fist pumping in the manner of the former president.

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Tokyo, Japan: What is the situation of that huge cemetary where fighting has been? Have the insurgents been completely routed out and is it now completely secured? Also, could you say something about the amount of coordination and tactics by the insurgents in Najaf? Some reports have attributed some quite advanced levels of guerilla style fighting. This seems a bit surprising considering the Sadr "army" is usually painted as a bit rag-tag. Thank you for your reporting and doing this Live Online session. It is very insightful.

Karl Vick: The cemetery belongs to nobody, but remains a place where both sides go to fight. The Americans are there 24/7, chiefly to draw fire and then direct return fire (often lately in the form of artillery), all the while denying the militia a bolt hole, base, or arms storage depo, all of which they had.

As for tactics, U.S. commanders do see far more organized fighting by the militia than in the past. They see this as a sign perhaps of foreign involvement, that is foreigners who've brought some skills, as well as participation from Fallujah and other points. "These guys are not the same guys who were fighting in April," one officer said.

I reported a bit on the evidence of improved training and tactics in the first piece I wrote from here, about fighting in the cemetery. The prodcuer might fish up a link.

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washingtonpost.com: Cemetery Fight Haunts Some U.S. Troops, (Post, Aug. 11)

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Cincinnati, Ohio: What are the criteria for determining a successful outcome to this engagement in military terms? Death, capture or surrender of al-Sadr? The surrender or death of all or substantially all of his brigade? (and what would we do with them if they did surrender en masse?)Something else?

Parenthetically, my son is a marine infantry officer in Fallujah and I want to express my deep appreciation for you and all the other embeds who are willing to give accounts of what is happening from the perspective of the soldiers. You show a profound admiration for their courage and honesty (as distinguished from that of the so-called leaders who sent them into this no-win war).

Karl Vick: I personally am taking the Iraqi government at their word when they say they want to see the militia disarmed and Moqtada to wade into real politics. There's no reason he shouldn't, if we overlook (as the politicos seem willing to do) the murder charge and everything.

The troops are great. Shame they've had to spend so many months behind armor, instead of getting to know the country as I know many of them would like. Iraqis remind me of Americans in some important ways, especially the gang in Baghdad. And tough? Don't get me started.

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Karl Vick: That'll have to do it for this time. Many thanks for playing along. I sense -- and really, it's only a sense -- that the next 24 hours or so will be crucial in determining how this ends.

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