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Peter Baker
Peter Baker
Forces Resume Baghdad As Army Takes On Key Defenders (Post, April 2)
U.S. Forces Rounding Up Civilian Suspects (Post, March 31)
War in Iraq Special Report
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War in Iraq:
Toward Baghdad

With Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent

Wednesday, April 2, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Behind an air assault on Iraqi defenses, U.S. Marines and Army troops Wednesday launched a two-pronged attack on the Republican Guard divisions defending the approaches to Baghdad, ending a week-long pause in the U.S. push toward the seat of Saddam Hussein's government. "We're tightening the noose around Baghdad," said Lt. Col. George Smith, a top planner for the Marines

Peter Baker, Washington Post foreign correspondent currently embedded with the command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was online from Marine Combat Headquarters in southern Iraq, Wednesday, April 2 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the onward push toward Baghdad.

A transcript follows.

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.

washingtonpost.com: Peter, thanks for taking time out for this discussion. So the beginning of the battle is on to dismantle the government of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Marine and Army troops are on their way. What is the mood among the troops?

Peter Baker: The mood among the troops is high -- they're happy to be on the move again. Marines, especially, despise the idea of a pause and so I think they're happy to be heading towards their goal. For most of these troops they know the only way home is through Baghdad.

Washington, D.C.: You write today about the detention of some Iraqi civilians who "interfere with mission accomplishment." Can you please explain?

Peter Baker: The guidelines that have been issued by the military are purposely vague to give as much latitude as possible to their troops in the field. The commanders don't want to micromanage what their Marines and soldiers need to do to protect themselves, but these guidelines were issued with the intent of giving them another tool to combat the paramilitary fighters who have been ambushing them along their supply lines for the last week. Many of these Iraqis have disguised themselves as civilians, fake surrenderers or even pushed women and children into the line of fire, according to front line U.S. troops. And so the military feels it has to respond.

McLean, Va.: What has been your experience in gauging the Iraqi sentiment about the coalition forces being in Iraq. Do most of them want us there or not?

Peter Baker: I haven't had any exposure to ordinary Iraqis from where I'm based so far. Reports that make their way to the Marine Headquarters where I'm at suggest a mixed bag. It's important to remember that many Iraqis are still leery of American promises to liberate them because they feel they were abandoned by the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf War. And so they're still not quite sure whether to trust that this is for real.

I spent three weeks in Iraq last December and I was also struck by the deep resentment of the U.S. among some Iraqis, who blame the U.S. for 112 years of economic sanctions, continued bombings in the no-fly zones and even a rash of cancers that they blame on the depleted uranium used in American munitions. So it's not as simple as throwing a ticker tape parade.

Washington, D.C.: Some locals over there are acting as human shields. What do the troops do when they meet up with that kind of resistance? And have any of the troops met up with the "official" group of human shields?

Peter Baker: If you mean "human shields" used by Iraqi fighters, the U.S. soldiers try their hardest to avoid harming innocent civilians. Marines who have run through the gantlet through Nasiriyah in southern Iraq tell of simply having to receive fire and being unable to return it for fear of hitting non-combatants. As for the foreign "human shields," the ground troops haven't run across those yet. That may become more an issue if and when they get to Baghdad.

Denver, Colo.: Hey Peter, Joshua Sharf here.

With Kut having fallen relatively easily, is there any concern that the Baghdad Division hasn't really been destroyed, but may be laying low like the Death Squads in the south? They would seem to pose a more serious long-term threat to supply lines, even on foot, than irregulars.

Peter Baker: Hi Josh, good to hear from you. You're absolutely right that Kut has not actually fallen. That's been a misimpression fostered by today's Centcom briefing. The Marines have smashed through the parts of the Baghdad division outside of Kut but have not entered the city. Some of the commanders here share your worry that perhaps there are significant elements hiding out in the city waiting for the right moment to strike.

Syracuse, N.Y.: How well informed are individual Marines in your unit about the overall progress of the war?

Peter Baker: Well, my unit wouldn't be representative because I'm at the Command Headquarters and their job is to oversee the macro battle so they have a very good sense of it. But the average Marine on the front lines is pretty uninformed, cut off from any real news other than gossip and loose talk. They live in a very small world and have what the Pentagon now calls a "soda straw" view of the war.

Arlington, Va.: Any word on any other MIAs or POWs?

Peter Baker: Aside from Jessica Lynch who was rescued yesterday, the U.S. forces who stormed the hospital in Nasiriyah found 11 dead bodies. It's possible a couple of them may be missing American troops. We're still waiting for more information about that.

Washington, D.C.: Why can't the U.S./British knock out Iraqi television?

Peter Baker: The Iraqis have mobile broadcast units that have enabled them to go back on the air when U.S. bombers have hit state television. Mobile broadcast units, like mobile missile launchers, are very hard to find and target. I'm also not sure how big a priority it is for them right now.

New Orleans, La.: Thanks for the excellent coverage. Has your position at the 1st MEF command headquarters come under any threat of attack?

Peter Baker: Well, the first Iraqi shot of the war was a missile that landed right near the Marine camp in Kuwait. Since the command post has been moved to Iraq there have been false alarms but no serious threat.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Joint forces; how far from Baghdad in this moment?

Peter Baker: The latest reports that have come over the wires say the Army is within 40 miles of Baghdad. The Marines are a little further away to the southeast at the moment.

Ventura, Calif.: From what we have been able to see on television on the coverage of the conflict in Iraq, I hope you keep your head down as they say in the military. Thank you for all your effort and courage. The only question I have is how difficult is it to tell who are the people you can trust and who are the enemy?

Peter Baker: For the troops, that's the million dollar question right now. It's easy if your enemy is in a uniform and rides around in military vehicles. But the members of Saddam's Fedayeen, the Baath party militias, and other paramilitary groups dress in civilian clothes and make it quite difficult for U.S. troops to tell who is hostile and who is not. There are some telltale signs if they get close enough. For example, the Marines say well-fed Iraqi men are more often likely to be members of these paramilitary groups since real civilians tend not to be as physically fit. But it's a still a guessing game as we saw the other day when the Army soldiers fired upon a vehicle with women and children under the belief that they were a threat.

Vienna, Va.: Some have said that this move toward Baghdad is the "end game" in the war. Is that what you hear over there?

Peter Baker: It's probably too early to declare an end game, though, of course, we'd all like to believe we're there. To get to Baghdad they need to get through these Republican Guard divisions. But assuming they finish that, they still have to figure out what to do about Baghdad itself. The U.S. commanders would prefer to see the government collapse under the pressure and desperately would like to avoid street-to-street urban combat in a city larger than Detroit. But if Hussein doesn't fall, the U.S. commanders will be forced to make a choice about how to go in a get him. Few of the options will look all that appealing -- if it comes down to that.

Silver Spring, Md.: Peter: Has there been any indication of chemical or biological weapons being used by the Iraqi forces as U.S. forces advance on Baghdad? What precautions are being taken by the commanders in the field to prepare our troops for that eventuality?

Peter Baker: So far, no evidence of chemical or biological weapons has turned up, but as the troops get closer to Baghdad, the concern about the likelihood that they will be used increases exponentially. U.S. troops in Iraq have all been immunized against smallpox and anthrax and generally wear chemical protection suits at all times, with gas masks at the ready on their hips. Commanders say all the time that they train and are ready to fight even in a chemical contaminated environment, but no one really wants to put that to test.

Lovettsville, Va.: Will the overall 'success' of this campaign ride on the ability of U.S. Forces to win the 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqis as the columnists and pundits say? Will it take much time and reflection for history to decide the outcome -- whether or not the U.S. wins outright?

Peter Baker: What almost any U.S. commander will tell you is that the outcome of the military battle is not in doubt. The real test will come after arms are laid down. The U.S. and British forces have already made concerted efforts to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that they come as liberators, not occupiers. Yesterday, Marines passed out food and medicine in Nasiriyah for instance. The British are working to restore water service to Umm Qasr. Humanitarian ships and convoys have already begun arriving in the south. So this is may be the real end game.

Sunnyvale, Calif.: I am so glad that Jessica Lynch was rescued, but I am wondering about the details. Was she in the hospital because she was injured, or was she being held prisoner there and injured during the rescue attempt? Were the 11 bodies killed during the rescue attempt or were they in a morgue?

Peter Baker: So far as I know, she was injured before the rescue attempt and the bodies had already been put in the morgue. But one thing is clear out here -- the first reports are often incomplete or misleading. And so as we learn more about this, we may bring greater clarity to those questions.

Peter Baker: Thank you all for logging and for such great questions. I wish I could answer all -- in fact, I wish I could ask them all -- I will take a lot of these to the U.S. commanders when we interview them. Take care, Peter.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company