Iraq: Latest Developments

Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 12, 2004; 11:00 AM

The southern Iraqi city of Fallujah was mostly quiet Monday on the second day of a truce. Last week, Fallujah was the scene of intense fighting between U.S. forces and local insurgents. In Baghdad, members of the Mahdi Army, a militia led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr have led attacks in the Sadr City neighborhood and other cities across Iraq. Meanwhile, a rash of kidnappings continues -- in the last week, militants have kidnapped at least 28 civilians from 11 countries.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick will be online live from Baghdad on Monday, April 12 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the latest developments from Iraq.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Karl Vick. (The Washington Post)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Karl Vick: Hello again from a rapidly changing Baghdad. The last week has been one of almost vertiginous change here. A resistance that earlier this month still seemed to exist largely in the shadows, and faceless -- planting bombs in highway medians or exploding car bombs - shows evidence of coalescing into something more like a movement.

In barber shops and living rooms, ordinary Iraqis are talking about Fallujah, and little else. The Marine siege of that city -- long dismissed by Iraqis as an exception, a rural place stuck in the past - is becoming a powerful symbol of resistance grounded at once in Islamic faith and nationalist feelings.

This is what comes across in chats and interviews with people on the street, in cafes and workplaces here. The great uncertainty is to what extent the coalition authorities - or the Governing Council - are aware of the change. The rhetoric from daily news briefings continues to heap blame on "extremists" and "enemies of democracy" and talk of a military response to a challenge framed in military terms. It sure seems a whole lot more complex than this.

"Strategic shift" is the phrase I just heard from Anthony Shadid, the Arabic-speaking Post correspondent who just won the Pulitzer for his work here over the last year. Sounds about right.

Now on with the show.


Portland, Maine: I have heard conflicting reports about the recent insurgence. Some say it's a few, small isolated pockets of last ditch resistance. Others say we're basically at war with the entire Iraqi people at this point and they are all unified against us.

I realize that this is a tough question: What is your view of the extent of resistance? What percent of the population wants us to leave? How much of the Iraqi people are willing to take up arms to achieve that result? Do you see this percentage changing in the near future? Thank you.

Karl Vick: It's impossible to say how popular this resistance is, but the last thing it appears to be is a last gasp, or diminishing. I spent the day talking to people who say their friends are rushing to Fallujah to join their brothers; clerics who, when you ask what they preached on last Friday answered, "Jihad, of course"; and Iraqi friends whose families are going again to their neighborhood mosque to answer the loudspeakers' calls for money and food for the victims of the siege.

You'll see well-done polls from weeks and months ago that showed Iraqis split on whether they want the US to leave or not. The US presence was seen as stabilizing by many here. But as I say, in the last seven days so much has changed here it's impossible to tell what people think any more. A lot of Iraqis are probably trying to decide that for themselves.


Chicago, Ill.: Do you think that the lifting of the siege around Fallujah without gaining effective control of the city will be seen as a victory by the insurgents and the Islamists? Do you think such an outcome is likely and what is the main motivation for American willingness to negotiate? Is it the fear of political consequences within Iraq, the difficulty of the operation in terms of the resistance the marines have encountered, diplomatic/political consequences of the high number of deaths reported in the press around the world, or concern within the Bush administration over the reaction of the American people to high U.S. casualties?

Karl Vick: I would think so, yes. All those considerations have to be factors. I also suspect -- and it's only speculation; it's not coming from any private information -- that the fate of hostages may be a factor.

But the main consideration has got to be whether the siege of Fallujah -- and the prospect of something similar at Najaf, the holy Shiite city where Moqtada Sadr is camped out --will make things better or worse for the occupation and the future of Iraq to which it is linked.


Cadiz, Spain: How long do you think the insurgents can maintain actual level of attacks? Are you personally agree with the measures that U.S. troops are taking to maintain peace? Is there anything else that -- in your opinion -- should be done to help Iraqi people to a normal way of living and if they prepared for it.

I'm also journalist.

Jesus Maria

Karl Vick: Yo Jesus,

To first question, I've no idea, though as I say the number of people volunteering for jihad or to "defend my country" seems to be on the steep rise. Read news accounts closely, and you find quotes -- like the one in Pam Constable's story in this morning's Post; she's embedded with the Marines at Fallujah -- from soldiers stunned at the numbers of enemy the find themselves facing.

Post military affairs correspondent Tom Ricks, who yesterday embedded with a 1st ID unit in Baquba, north of Baghdad, was similarly surprised by the forces arraying themselves against US armor there. Scores--and more-- of insurgents making coordinated attacks, and standing out there alone against armor, as if welcoming death.


Reading, Mass.: What action provided the tipping point in the Iraqi insurgency crisis?

Karl Vick: Take a look at the nearly comprehensive account in Sunday's Post for that answer; it's a long one.

In the end, though, it was Paul Bremer's decision to test Moqatda Sadr by shuttering his newspaper....at the beginning of the week when Fallujah also blew up. One U.S. official called it "the perfect storm."


washingtonpost.com: U.S. Targeted Fiery Cleric in Risky Move, (Post, April 11)


Wilson, N.C.: Mr. Vick,
This morning both CBC and CNN are reporting that 600 Iraqis have been killed in Fallujah. The CBC reports that some of those killed were women and children. CNN reported that they were all enemy combatants. What is the truth? Do the TV reporters there ever check the "facts" spoon fed them by the military? Thanks for putting your life at risk to tell the world the unfiltered truth. That is something that is sorely lacking in the American television media.

Karl Vick: Hi Wilson,

The 600 figure is widely reported, and extraordinarily compelling to the Arab audience glued to the satellite news channels by coverage of the siege. But the figure also is almost impossible to check. The hospitals reporting the figures are inside the Marine perimeter, and news agencies are relying on local stringers to pass along basic information. It doesn't seem possible just now to ask them to perform a thorough vetting of such claims.


Gaithersburg, Md.: There is a sense that the occupation is near a turning point. Either the U.S. will attempt to crush the insurgency or an Iraqi governing body will step forward and negotiate an end to the violence. What other paths are there? How long before we know which path will be followed?

Karl Vick: The optimist in me -- a puckish fellow who lolls about in mountain meadows counting clouds -- sees in the resistance not only anger at the occupation but also a surge in nationalist and religious feeling that contains a lot of positive elements. Two weeks ago the concern was that a flurry of provocative attacks -- assassinations, drive-by bombings of mosques -- targeting both Shia and Sunnis would lead to sectarian division here.

Now you have Shia families in Baghdad taking in Sunni refugees (women, children and old men allowed to pass thru the Marine lines). It's not all bad.

Inasmuch as Washington has not yet said what body would receive Iraq's sovereignty when it's officially returned to the sons and daughters of the land on June 30, maybe there's hope that out of this crucible will emerge a recipient some entity that Iraqis regard as more representative of their aspirations than the Governing Council appointed by Bush's viceroy, Mr. Bremer. It is widely criticized here as out of touch with ordinary people by dint of being dominated by exiles.


Paestum, Italy (on vacation, but trying to stay informed): Dear Mister Vick,

Regarding the increase in violence and determination of many different Iraqi groups, whether Sunni, Shiite or other, I have two questions:

1. While the mainstream press in the U.S. does practically not mention Ahmed Chalabi's shady business history, whereas in the European press Chalabi and his brothers' convictions in Jordan and Switzerland for example are less of a secret, I wonder whether the average Iraqis do indeed view Mr. as a crook and mere American stooge?

2. In light of former speaking engagements by Mr. Chalabi to certain U.S. Jewish groups close to the Israeli Likud establishment, as well as his close ties with certain U.S. neo-cons, who also maintain close ties to the Israeli Likud establishment, are such facts in any way exploited in terms of Anti-Semitic and/or Anti-Israeli enmity in Iraq as a means to gather Anti-U.S. sentiments?

Thank you for your time and insights.

Karl Vick: 1. A-yup.

2. I haven't heard that one before, but, being Middle-Easterns (and Arabs to boot), Iraqis do love a good, double-banked, ju-jitsu conspiracy, of all things. Especially if you can get Ariel Sharon in there.


Asheville, N.C.: Do you know whether your reports (this one or others) are being vetted or screened?

Karl Vick: By whom?

Only Washington Post editors get to mess with my copy (we say this lightly). And one of the joys of the online chat is that no one at all gets to edit my replies. I hit the "submit" button and there it is.

Seriously, though, all reporters in Baghdad exist and work outside outside the coalition. I imagine those very few who are embedded still have to abide by certain rules -- no giving away attacks in advance, specific positions, you know, common sense things -- but there's filter in Iraq otherwise.


Washington, D.C.: I find it very surprising that Lt. Col Byrne, commanding Marines besieging Fallujah, is able to determine that 95 percent of the casualties in the week's fighting in Fallujah were armed insurgents. The American and the international press has reported that occupation forces control only some 20 to 25 percent of the city. Byrne has neither seen the wounded in hospitals and clinics, nor the dead in the city's morgues or in the cemeteries or improvised burial places. Byrne's statement is an embarrassingly clumsy attempt to obscure the high toll of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military's encirclement of and assault on the city of Fallujah. Byrne's pronouncements appear absurd when placed in the context of commentary on events in Fallujah carried by other major international newsgathering organizations.

Karl Vick: U.S. commanders and troops are professionals, and take a professional pride in their work. They say they shoot only when shot at, and that their return fire is precise. That's what I hear in the statement you quote from Byrne.

Whatever's happening in Fallujah -- where, as I say, a lot of young Iraqi men (and some foreign ones, such as Saudis) seem to be going the fight against the infidel occupiers -- war is not a clean business, U.S. weapons are extraordinarily lethal, and even professional soldiers are human.

I wrote a week ago about a day I spent in a Sadr City hospital. There were old men and little girls with bullet wounds. All Iraqis say they fear American soldiers when someone is shooting at them. We journalists do too. The lead flies.


washingtonpost.com: Violence in Sadr City Embitters Both Sides, (Post, April 6)


Forest Hills, N.Y.: Is there a sense that this uprising is becoming popular because ordinary Iraqis believe it is effective? If so, wouldn't it make military sense to simply crush the rebellion swiftly and with overwhelming force, rather than soft-pedal with half measures? I'm no advocate of violence against civilians, but the longer this goes on, the more likely this becomes a national struggle for Iraq rather than a local power play by a radical group.

Karl Vick: These are calculations for U.S. commanders and policy makers, of course. But I get no sense on the ground that the overwhelming odds are taking the sap out of the fighters.

The contrary may be true. This afternoon I talked with a guy who ... I'm not sure how to describe him, except as someone who says he takes volunteers in and out of Fallujah several times a day. He said the ones coming out say, "It is beautiful there." The bliss is one of a fight that feels utterly pure and righteous, and ends in paradise.


Oakland, Calif.: You mentioned the American troops' surprise at the numbers of fighters they are facing. Do you have any similar impressions of the morale of the troops in face of this groundswell of opposition, and in terms of the reports of units of Iraqi army and police refusing to fight?

Karl Vick: It can't be good.


Easton, Md.: Hi Karl,

How have things changed for you journalists in the last two weeks? Are you more concerned about your own safety? Thanks for your hard week. Stay safe!

Karl Vick: Yes, it's gotten much more challenging. The only good news is that, so far, the journalists who've been kidnapped have been released. There seems to be some recognition of either our neutrality or our value as communicators.


Washington, D.C.: A report in the UK Telegraph, (U.S. Tactics Condemned by British Officers, April 11), indicates that some senior British military officers in theater believe the U.S. forces are using less discretion than they should in attacking Fallujah and the Iraqis in general. To what extent, if any, do you feel this corroborates the Iraqi accounts of large civilian casualties there? Shouldn't the U.S. media explore this possibility with more rigor?

Karl Vick: Yes, but how? Anyone approaching Fallujah now is liable either to be stopped (or worse) by the Marines or taken hostage (or worse) by the insurgents who roam freely between Baghdad and the Marine rear.


Rochester, N.Y.: Have you ever been stationed in Israel? Do you see the conflicts as similar?

Karl Vick: Never been.

Another question, though is whether the appearance of the conflicts -- especially on Arabic language television stations -- feeds the impression of similarity. And that is surely happening.


Rochester, N.Y.: Hi,
Hostility between ethnic groups seems to be a big issue for Iraq. Is it your impression that the Shia and Sunni communities are working more productively together now (aside from attacking Americans), rather than outright hostility over past wrongs? That hopes for a functional society actually are increasing?

Thanks very much.

washingtonpost.com: Muslim Rivals Unite in Baghdad Uprising, (Post, April 7)

Karl Vick: I say Rochester:

Iraqi's Sunni and Shiite communities have never been so very hostile to one another, least of all in cosmopolitan Baghdad. But, yes, in the last week there's even less. I've actually gotten scolded for asking if a person is Shiite or Sunni. "Muslim!" an old woman told me.

And I spent the morning at a Sunni mosque decorated with a poster of Moqtada Sadr, the infamous "firebrand Shiite cleric."


Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Canada: Just when will the helicopters be lifting off from the embassy roof? Saigon, 1974. Baghdad, 2004. Thirty years and America has learned absolutely nothing. Iraq is looking more and more like Nam, all the time. When is Francis Ford Coppola starting production on Apocalypse Redux? I await your comments?

Karl Vick: You do?

That kind of gallows humor is going around, of course. I saw a howlarious e-mail the other day drawing on the comparisons. Dare I post it?


Wheaton, Md.: Is there any way to restore order in Iraq without killing Moqtada Sadr and other terrorists?

Karl Vick: Dunno.

Is there a way to restore order in Iraq *by* killing Moqtada Sadr? And is he a terrorist? He calls himself a nationalist, and many Iraqis -- don't ask me how many; it's just impossible to know -- are giving him the benefit of the doubt, and thanking him for stirring people to fight the power.

He's also clearly a fundamentalist, and junior in both influence and followers to more moderate (and more senior) clerics, led by Ayatollah Sistani. What Sistani and other senior clerics in Iraq are doing right now to contain, accommodate or otherwise defuse Sadr is for now the great untold story.


Washington, D.C.: Go ahead, post the howlarious e-mail!

washingtonpost.com: We trust you to make the right decision, Karl.

Karl Vick: Trust but verify.

I never wanted to go back into the Green Zone anyway. If it all goes badly pear-shaped, I'm putting my faith in Mam Jalal....

This is being forwarded around the Internet...

Subject: If Iraq like Vietnam, why's there no Coppola movie?

The White House is mightily cheesed off at suggestions Iraq has turned into
some sort of Vietnam for George W. Bush.

When Senator Ted Kennedy made that comment ? and he wasn't exactly the
to make or think it ? the Bush administration was dismissive. They said it
was about what you could expect from a pal of John Kerry, the guy who's got
the Democratic presidential nomination in the bag and hopes to defeat Bush
this November.

And Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even got into a debate with an uppity
reporter over the definition of "quagmire," something Vietnam might have
been, he said, but Iraq certainly is not.

Fact is, the White House says, there are a number of substantive
between the war in Iraq, and the war in Vietnam. To prove its point, it has
released a list of them:

Iraq is over here, and Vietnam is way, way over here, to the right.

Francis Ford Coppola hasn't made a movie about Iraq. He hasn't even started

During the Vietnam War, while the country's young people were being sent
into battle, rich Americans back home had to do without huge tax cuts. Not
this time! Today, well-to-do Americans don't have to make any sort of
financial sacrifices ? in fact, they're coming out ahead! ? while the
country's young men and women are being sent into harm's way.

There were lots of protest songs written about Vietnam, like "Give Peace a
Chance" by John Lennon, "Bring 'Em Home" by Pete Seeger, and "The Story of
Isaac" by Leonard Cohen, but hardly any protest songs about Iraq have been
recorded yet by major artists.

Uh, hello? Did you ever hear anyone talking about huge oil reserves in

As the war in Vietnam dragged on and seemed more and more hopeless, the
United States was forced to send over thousands more troops to try to get a
handle on the situation, but today ... whoa, hang on, let's just move on to
the next item.

A few weeks after the war in Vietnam began, the president at the time
able to land on an aircraft carrier and declare "Mission accomplished!",
was he?

Vietnam was not hiding weapons of mass destruction, was not actively
developing biological and chemical and nuclear weapons, and did not have
missiles that it could launch in 90 seconds, unlike the nation of Ir--.
Actually, again, let's go on to the next item.

Okay, say "Iraq." Now say "Vietnam." Do it again. Two syllables, three
syllables. They share a couple of vowels, and that's it.

Vietnam was not preparing to attack the United States but, as we knew way
back in early 2003, based on our impeccable intelligence resources, Saddam
Hussein was getting ready to ... look, you're not going to believe this,
maybe you should scratch this one off the list, as well.

Vietnam had lots and lots of jungles, and Iraq does not.

The United States didn't actually start the Vietnam War. So there!

In Vietnam, the U.S. didn't end up finding, in a hidey-hole, the very guy
who was in no way responsible for a major attack on U.S. soil.

The presidents who presided over the Vietnam War never had their picture
taken with the troops while holding a fake turkey.

During the Vietnam War, you'd never have seen stodgy ol' President Johnson
or humorless President Nixon at the Radio and Television Correspondents'
Association Dinner, doing a funny slide show that mocked their intentions
Vietnam, unlike our current president, who can, incredibly, find some yucks
in invading a country ? and leaving thousands dead in the process ? to find
something it turns out was never even there.


Urbana, Ill.: Dear Mr. Vick,
Your article this morning was truly excellent, and added much need texture to the recent reportage coming from Iraq. My question is related to this. Publicly, officials from the Bush administration have offered a very simple "read" of the situation in Iraq... one of "gangs" "terrorists" "thugs" "freedom" "anti-democratic forces." Does this sort of language have any real play in how the U.S. manages the situation in the streets of Iraq? Is this purely for American consumption? Is there support/frustration with this sort of simplification among those military officers and civilians who actually have to meet with Iraqis face-to-face? (I am hoping you can reassure me)


washingtonpost.com: Iraqi Bond Breaks as Fighting Rages, (Post, April 12)

Karl Vick: Afraid I can't reassure you because I just don't see that many soldiers to ask, or soldiers interacting with ordinary folks any more. That was what made the meeting in the Sheraton yesterday worth writing about.

And *it* wasn't too re-assuring, was it?

One problem seems to be the polarizing that comes with combat -- us against them on both sides. Another is the isolation. One day last week I was in Sadr City, talking to a young officer who a week earlier had been in neighborhood council meetings with the people he now looked at across an armored column, the one between the police station he was sent to guard and the people he thought he'd come to protect and serve, if you will. (Mind, no one's calling this a police action.) He asked me what I was hearing from the population.

"I'm in my own little world here," he said. I don't know if he could even talk to the people if they approached; the last officer I'd talked to, a captain at another station, said he didn't have a translator.

"Probably be a good time to have one," he said.


Karl Vick: Outta time, I'm afraid. A fair torrent of questions get no reply, and the usual apologies for that. Very gratifying to see so many people paying such close attention. These have the feeling of pivotal days.


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