Takeover of Tikrit
With Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 15, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
U.S. Marines seized control of Saddam Hussein's home region of Tikrit Monday in what military officials said marked the last of the Iraqi war's decisive battles. The takeover signified a new phase of the war, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at a briefing at Central Command Headquarters in Doha, Qatar. With the major battles now over, he said, troops would concentrate on peace-keeping and helping the Iraqis erect a new government. It is now transition time.
Daniel Williams, Washington Post foreign correspondent, was online live from northern Iraq Tuesday, April 15 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the takeover of Tikrit as well as the ongoing tension and conflict between Arabs and Kurds in the region.
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: Dan, thanks for being with us today. You've been in Iraq reporting for two months now and are currently in Irbil in the north. What is the situation in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit?
Daniel Williams: Today it was evidently still roiling. There was some shootout between Kurds and Arabs -- I don't know exactly if it was in the town or nearby. This points out that the war in the north has elements of ethnic conflict and was never just an issue of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have expanded their territory about 50 miles from the borders they controlled before the war began. They considered this area their land and Saddam Hussein had expelled 300,000 Kurds from the region during his rule.
Milano, Italy: Hi,
Do you really think an self-governing Kurdish region could cohabit in a federal Iraq with Sunni and Shiite? What does the Turkish government think?
Daniel Williams: On the first one, yes, but the tension between Arab and Kurd in this area has to be settled first. I believe the Kurds truly want a federal and not an independent state. That is because Turkey, Syria and Iran would not accept such a move.
Arlington, Va.: It seems like the Iraqi military, including Saddam's fedayeen, weren't all that hard to defeat. Is that the feeling there among military personnel?
Daniel Williams: The ones I've come into contact with say yes. The Iraqi army was antiquated and of course, the Americans controlled the skies. Also, the fedayeen were largely meant to keep an eye on the Iraqi people themselves, to avoid the kind of uprising that followed the firsts Persian Gulf war.
Alexandria, Va.: After WW2 the Germans were dispirited. They did not cheer the arriving Americans but neither did the Germans fight anymore.
Are Saddam's kinsmen in Tikrit dispirited in the same way the Germans were?
Daniel Williams: I would be careful about comparing the two situations. People are disspirited but they are also highly nationalistic and the American occupation runs the risk of igniting nationalist feelings. For instance, in Mosul, a largely Arab town, hundreds of Iraqi flags spontaneously appeared in the streets just the day after the city fell.
Bethesda, Md.: It looks like the next country that the U.S. will go after is Syria. Any word or discussion from your side of the fence about Syria?
Daniel Williams: They're putting a lot of pressure on Syria but I think was is a long shot. The current Assad government is not in the same league of brutality as the Saddam Hussein government and Britain has already objected to talk of war.
Arlington, Va.: What is your sense of Iraqi opinion regarding the various nations and entities (France, the U.N., the "Arab street", etc.) who actively supported the regime of Saddam Hussein and obstructed the efforts to end it? If there are Iraqis who see the U.S. as "liberators", there are probably plenty who view the aforementioned group as "oppressors".
Daniel Williams: Since I'm in northern Iraq, I'll speak about the Kurds. They are overwhelmingly in favor of the American action and regard the antiwar movement as their enemy. They frequently point out that no one demonstrated on their behalf when Kurdish villagers were being gassed by Saddam Hussein.
College Park, Md.: Now that ethnic fighting has begun in northern Iraq, which side has the upper hand? Which side will the U.S. support? Or will there be no effort at all to get involved and just wait to see who wins?
Daniel Williams: I think for the U.S., the objective should be reconciliation. If not, the conflict up here could last for a long time and undermine the entire project of creating a democracy in Iraq.
Piscataway, N.J.: Do you think the new Iraqi government will survive?
Daniel Williams: I think we're a little bit ahead of the game there. The Americans will have to be very careful to create an inclusive government. The issue in Iraq, besides the Kurdish problem, is the rise of the Shiite Muslim majority. This population has long been on the outside looking in and it wants power.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Where you aware the Bush Administration has acknowledge that for the most part the fighting is over and now the President is turning his attention to domestic issues?
Are things in Iraq so calm that the President is correct to "move on" to domestic issues?
Daniel Williams: I've heard that, but believe me, they won't be able to ignore Iraq.
Washington, D.C.: What do you see as the next step in Iraq now that the war seems to almost over?
Daniel Williams: There are several next steps that have to happen simultaneously. They must restore basic public services. They must get public order to a reasonable level. And they must persuade Iraqis that relatively soon, they will be in charge of their own affairs.
Cumberland, Md.: How dangerous is the possibility of a rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How can we stop Iran from meddling and influencing the Shiites in Iran?
Daniel Williams: There will without a doubt be an element of Islamic fundamentalism in this country. It will be one of many movements trying to fill the vacuum left by the dictatorship. Iran will meddle, but as I said before, the Iraqis are very nationalistic and will produce their own brand of extremism.
Kailua, Hawaii: Do the Kurds express opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and U.S. intentions about the region outside of Iraq?
Daniel Williams: A little. They would like it solved because it creates a hostile atmosphere all over. The Kurds are allied with the U.S. The U.S. is allied with Israel. So in Arab eyes, the Kurds are somehow anti-Palestinian.
Harrisburg, Pa.: It appears we didn't have the foresight to guard the museum and some infrastructure necessary for the Iraqi people. Does it appear that our troops are doing a good job at retaining order and providing food and utilities to the Iraqi people? We will win greater support from the people when we treat them well.
Daniel Williams: I think they made some big mistakes in their deployment when they took some cities. It was a volatile situation and certainly the museum affair has become a symbol of the American inability to guard key spots quickly.
Cumberland, Md.: A lot of people are saying the UN should be involved, but given the UN track record in Kosovo, Bosnia, etc. -- Given that the UN couldn't stop ethnic cleansing by the KLA in Kosovo why do people think that it would be successful in Iraq which is more complex?
Daniel Williams: It depends what the U.N. does. As peace-keepers, their track record is bad. But they can provide humanitarian aid -- for twelve years the U.N. has fed all of Kurdistan. The U.N. involvement might actually take pressure off the U.S. by spreading responsibility around.