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Fighting in Samarra, Iraq

Aired October 4, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET


RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN HOST: Taking Iraq back from the insurgents. Iraqi forces mop up after what is being a successful mission to reclaim the city of Samarra. But insurgents hit back hard in Baghdad.
Hello and welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva.

Anyone who plays a role in stabilizing a post-Saddam Iraq will sooner or later have to deal with the so-called volatile Sunni Triangle. Geographically, it's a small region of Iraq just north of Baghdad but it's causing a whole lot of problems for the interim Iraqi government and U.S. forces.

With elections fast approaching in January, stabilizing the rebel-held areas is becoming more crucial by the day, so U.S. and Iraqi forces have started to wrest control of the Sunni Triangle from the rebels to enable elections to go ahead.

Part 1 was Samarra. By most accounts, it was a success. But a big test remains. Will Iraqi forces be able to hold on to the city once the U.S. troops leave? And will they achieve similar successes in other insurgent strongholds, like Ramadi and Fallujah?

On our program today, getting ready for an election.

We begin with CNN's Jane Arraf in Samarra.


JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The white flag of surrender turned to an emblem of Zorro. Iraqi families brave the streets of Samarra, still filled with U.S. troops, to claim their dead. After two days of fighting, it was the first time they've been able to venture out to the hospital.

U.S. military says it killed more than 130 insurgents. In the fierce fighting, others will killed by mistake or caught in the crossfire.

The interior minister insisted there were no civilian casualties and called the operation a success.

But the people at Samarra's main hospital saw it differently. This Kurdish woman lost her brother, Salam Ud Hassan (ph).

"He was 18 years old, a young man," his father said. He said his son was unarmed, going to a neighbor's house 100 meters away when he was shot in the head.

U.S. soldiers search the families before they enter the hospital. Four rows of body bags. Salam (ph) is the first one.

"There is no God but God," echoes through the corridor as other families take their dead away. There were more than 50 bodies here. Hospital workers don't believe they were insurgents at all.

"They were religious scholars, children, women," this man says. From one of the bodies, workers gently remove a blood-soaked Koran and display it.

(on camera): It's hard to find any Iraqis here who believe that these dead men were fighters. To them, they were fathers, sons, brothers, ordinary citizens of Samarra.

(voice-over): American officials say the vast majority were military age and some were foreigners.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To the best I know, there were somewhere between 50 and 60 remains that are here. Most of them are military-aged men. There were some collateral casualties, but generally it was military-aged men.

Among the civilian casualties, hospital records show Dalal Abasal Agar (ph) and her six children, the sister-in-law of these two men. They say their 18-year-old nephew, his widowed mother and five sisters were fleeing when their car was fired on by U.S. forces. A two-year-old girl thrown to safety by her brother was burned but survived.

"They promised us freedom. This is damnation. They wiped out an entire family," said Jamal Abas (ph).

While relatives and hospital workers load the bodies on a truck, American soldiers find a collection of weapons at the hospital, including rocket-propelled grenades and guns.

While Iraqi officials praise the operation, the head of Samarra's City Council, Taha Hussein Al Sala (ph), said local officials had asked for more time to diffuse the insurgency.

"We wanted to save the city, but it was not under our control. This was not with our consent," he said.

At the cemetery, Apache helicopters flew overhead as the families buried their loved ones. The refrain again, "There is no God but God."

U.S. soldiers waited outside. Inside, Iraqi national guard whose forces helped in the offensive, stood watch.

"Insurgents, innocents, it was chaos," said this man. "No one can tell who was a terrorist and who wasn't. What happened happened."

Jane Arraf, CNN, Samarra, Iraq.


VASSILEVA: When we come back, the role played by Iraqi troops in all of this.

Sty with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The big news today was, and yesterday, was that the Iraqi security forces really handled themselves well. The 36 Commando, who seized and controlled the Golden Mosque, were magnificent. The 7th Iraqi Army, who seized the spiral minorette (ph) and later conducted operations in other parts of the city and the special police battalion, where we were today, with those guys in the southern part of the city, are doing a great job. They're getting better and better trained, better and better equipped. It ought to give us a lot of confidence.



VASSILEVA: Fallujah is one of the most important cities for Sunni Islam. It's know in Iraq as the City of Mosques and was an important area of support for Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party.

Now it is under the control of insurgents, virtually off limits to Iraqi and coalition forces. But for how long?

Welcome back.

This weekend's operation in Samarra was one of the biggest military offenses since the war began. It involved some 2,000 U.S. troops and more importantly 1,000 Iraqis. Among them, a new Iraqi SWAT team that was formed only six weeks ago.

How did they perform? Joining us now to talk more about this is retired U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis.

Colonel Maginnis, thank you so much for joining us.

First of all, Samarra. The U.S. military is very pleased with how the Iraqi troops performed. It seems like for the first time they did stand their ground. What is your assessment?

LT. COL. BOB MAGINNIS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Ralitsa, we're 16 or 17 months into the post-Saddam era. We have about 100,000 Iraqi forces, a combination of police, guard and so forth. 1,000 of them took part in this particular operation.

You know, they had kind of a training ground in Najaf in August and they didn't do so well in April. We've poured a lot of resources into new weapons, communications gear, protective garments.

Also, General Dave Petraeus has brought a lot of experienced trainers over there, so we've been training intensely, and you have to keep in mind, imbedded within the Iraqi units are U.S. advisors who have been walking them all along. But I think the primary ingredient here is leadership.

We've brought in some of the old Saddam Hussein people that we think are fairly clean. We vetted them in terms of not having blood on their hands from the Saddam era. But they're providing the type of leadership that was missing in the April and to a certain degree in the August incursions in Najaf and of course Fallujah.

VASSILEVA: I wanted to ask you, though, loyalty is a question mark. Just very recently a senior general was arrested because he was colluding with the insurgents. How big of a problem is that?

MAGINNIS: Well, that's a real problem. And of course we made a tragic mistake in standing down the entire military right at the beginning. And of course, the Republican Guard, we didn't try to find all of them. We let them fade and melt back into society, and of course they are providing the very leadership to the insurgency plus some of the funding from perhaps inside and outside, that's been giving us all these problems.

So, you know, there are probably more that are out there, and eventually the Allawi government or one that follows will discover these people and will remove them from their positions.

VASSILEVA: Speaking of fading away, the biggest test in Samara will be when the U.S. troops leave Samara and leave it in the hands of Iraqi security forces. What do you think the challenges will be to keep control of Samarra?

MAGINNIS: Well, there were a couple of hundred by our count, insurgents there, and a lot of sympathizers.

VASSILEVA: Some say possibly 500 to 1,000.

MAGINNIS: That's true. It depends on how you count the sympathizers, though, and that's the difficulty. You know, nobody knows order of battle in an insurgency, and in that particular case, you know, it's hard to count.

You had 100-plus bodies that they found after the insurgency, but all you have to do is throw your weapon to the ground and all of the sudden you melt back into the general population.

But the Iraqi police have been progressively learning how to train. You know, you have NATO people down in Jordan and Iraq now that are helping to train -- a lot of police academies down in Jordan itself. These people are being equipped with the right tools.

The question, I think, is whether or not working with the National Guard and with some of the Iraqi Army forces that will probably stay there, are they going to be able to keep the peace. We're certainly optimistic, but this is a crapshoot.

VASSILEVA: I want to get an idea of how many have actually been highly trained and they've been highly invested into, just like the troops that we saw and the police that we are seeing in Samarra?

Do you have that number or any idea?

MAGINNIS: Well, we claim that we've trained 100,000. We've certainly spent a lot of billions of dollars doing that.

The question whether or not they're up to par to the U.S. military or to some of the professional policemen in the United States, I would say the answer at this point is no. However, a lot of these young policemen have a great deal of, you know, combat experience. They've been on the wrong end of a weapon. They know what it is to chase down, you know, a variety of insurgents.

So they probably have a couple of years of experience in the last six weeks alone. So we have to be optimistic, but once again, it's going to be tough for them in the near future, especially as we move toward elections.

VASSILEVA: In April, most of them deserted. That was just April. What is the likelihood that this could happen again?

MAGINNIS: Well, you did have sizeable numbers of troops that did abandon their position. They had never taken fire before and, of course, they were poorly paid and not well equipped.

Now, we've remedied the problem of equipment and we've radically increased their pay and provided them with medical and other services, but I think the thing missing was leadership and we're hoping that the older leaders that have been brought aboard, who we've invested a lot of money in, will be able to sustain that.

You know, keep in mind, of course, we're hoping that they are focused on a future Iraq that will be free and not dependent solely upon the United States and it's money.

VASSILEVA: Lieutenant Colonel Bob Maginnis, thank you very much.

MAGINNIS: Thank you.

VASSILEVA: We have to take a break now. When we come back, the elections. Will terror overshadow Iraq's vote.

Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to recognize that insurgents, call them what you want, terrorists, cannot exist without -- they are the fish in the Iraqi pond. Zarqawi and his head-chopping militants could not be operating in Iraq if it weren't for the goodwill and the support of a passive but tacitly cooperative Iraqi population, wherever he is hiding.

There is a widespread resentment against the American occupation and the way things have been conducted in Iraq, which have allowed the situation to come about. If Zarqawi and his lot begin -- are scene to be hurting the Iraqis even more than they are hurting the Americans, that's the potential tipping point in terms of cooperation by Iraqis towards this type of people.



VASSILEVA: Iraq's insurgents are not that discriminating when it comes to targets. That was obvious last week when children bore the brunt of twin suicide bombings. The children had been waiting to receive candy from U.S. soldiers at a celebration to mark the opening of a new sewer plant in Baghdad.

Then two suicide bombers exploded their deadly cargo. Of 41 people killed, 34 were children.

Welcome back to INSIGHT.

Officials have warned that insurgent attacks will only increase in the run up to Iraq's election in January. So far that has proven to be true.

There were 2,400 attacks last month alone, up from about 400 in February. An almost daily reminder happened in Baghdad on Monday as insurgents targeted a recruitment center for security forces.

CNN's Brent Sadler reports.


BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Two powerful car bomb attacks in central districts of Baghdad. The first targeting an army recruitment center, killing around 15 and wounding at least 75 others, according to Iraq's Health Ministry.

The explosion happened near a U.S. military checkpoint outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, home of the United States and British embassies. A while sports utility vehicle burst into flames amid scenes of bloodshed and panic.

The attack plan was similar to scores of other strikes on Iraq's security forces and at making Iraqis afraid of recruitment into the ranks of the police and army as well as sapping morale among those already serving.

In a second blast, Iraqi reports say bombers targeted two armored vehicles of the type used by Western security personnel and contractors in a busy commercial district.

From the top of our hotel, we could see a large plume of black smoke. Then a brief gun battle, shots echoing across the city as Iraqi police reportedly exchanged fire with suspected insurgents.

(on camera): Even as U.S. backed Iraqi forces claimed success, overwhelmingly rebel stronghold north of Baghdad, insurgents can still strike terror in the heart of the capital.

(Voice-over): West of Baghdad U.S. war planes have again attacked suspected insurgent operations in Fallujah, destroying what the U.S. military claims are the movements of weapons, training and the planning of terror attacks, the kind of attacks that shook the capital on this day.

Brent Sadler, CNN, Baghdad.


VASSILEVA: Despite the violence, the Iraqi interim government insists elections will take place in January.

Joining us now to discuss the elections is Abdul Hari Giad Kohmeme (ph), a journalist with Arab satellite television.

Abdul Hari (ph), thank you very much for joining us.


VASSILEVA: . to talk about the possibility of holding credible elections.

The U.N. secretary-general is on record saying that in these current conditions in Iraq there cannot be, in his mind, credible elections.

KOHMEME (ph): True. I think there are several if not many analysts and observers who agree with the United Nations secretary-general that it would be impossible to have any kind of elections in Iraq in the circumstances, because the main priority for all Iraqis -- and you can say for the American forces and the Iraqi government -- is not the elections, but the security situation.

Unless the country is stabilized from the security point of view, it would be impossible to hold any elections, because you need polls, you need groups, you need observers, you need people who manage that, organize that, and they cannot do that simply because they would be targets of attacks.

VASSILEVA: How do you think it could be stabilized?

KOHMEME (ph): I think the American forces or the Iraqi government cannot stabilize the situation by using their military might down there because this is worsening the situation. This is creating fertile soil to recruit more people into the insurgency than actually putting people off from them.

Of course, we all know there are several groups with several sometimes different objectives in doing any violence against the Americans or the interim Iraqi government, but when people see their sons or houses demolished or neighbors killed by operations like the one that we have just seen in our colleague Jane Arraf's report from Samarra, this will create a worsening situation for the whole a objective of stabilizing the country.

VASSILEVA: I wanted to ask you about an interesting development. Muqtada al Sadr, the fiery rebel Shiite cleric, was involved in some of the most violent battles with U.S. forces in Najaf, and now there are many reports saying that he has started putting out feelers for participating in these elections.

KOHMEME (ph): Well, yes, you just described it as feelers, and these feelers might not be true.

Muqtada al Sadr led a phenomenon in the Iraqi society. It's not because he is charismatic or he has got some intellectual capacity. It's just because he was speaking out some of the minds of the majority of the Iraqis who were complaining about the lack of services about repression, about themselves being attacked, about the unemployment that has soared to 70 percent of the labor force in Iraq after the invasion and occupation of Iraq because the military forces were disbanded, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) were sent home. Lots of ministries were just closed down by the occupation forces at the time last year.

So there are so many complaints and he was capitalizing on that. So he was capitalizing on a phenomenon inside Iraqi society. Even if he is going to participate in the elections, I think -- I have to make it very clear. I mean, from my talk and discussion with several people who have been to Iraq, are coming out down here to London, they say that actually if Muqtada al Sadr is going to participate in the elections, there is a possibility that he is going to undermine the strength of the other Shiite groups which have been supportive of the American drive or campaign in Iraq, and this is the main danger down here, because he is leading a religious group and therefore the secular Iraq is going to be transferred into a religious Iraq and the danger lies here.

And may I say -- point out one other aspect which is very, very important. The society in Iraq is traditionally linked to each other, the families. In other words, traditions are more important that any other allegiances.

Saddam Hussein tried to break up those allegiances. Now they are coming back in full strength, and I think the American administration and the Iraqi government should have an exit policy out of this cycle of bloodshed and attacks, to make the people come to them and support them instead of alienating them, so that they are not going to go and join the other forces who are advocating violence.

VASSILEVA: Abdul Hari (ph), I wanted to ask you, what role do you think that Arab nations can play in this?

KOHMEME (ph): I think the Arab nations -- I think they are just helpless themselves. They don't know what to do.

I was hosting the other day just a few of the analysts from the Arab world, and everybody was saying it's just turmoil in Iraq. There are two sets of Arab minds down here. Some of them say, well, the next stage is going to be American forces walking into some other Arab country simply to topple or undermine another government that is not a friend of the United States of America.

Other parties say, well, it is a new drive towards democracy and freedom.

But what is happening in Iraq does not make people feel assured that what is coming next is freedom and democracy, so it's all turmoil, actually, all over the Arab world, and the governments don't know what to do.

If they go and support the American campaign in Iraq, they will be seen by their own people as if they are supporting an American -- what they call American hegemony in the region, which they do not support -- the people, not the government.

So it's all confusion, actually. There is no intellectual basis for any clear drive into any political campaign to lead this way or that way, and I think here the American administration -- although I think it is in a very complicated situation now because of the election in a few weeks time, so they cannot manage any different policy than to go on with what they are doing in Iraq, so the whole.

VASSILEVA: Dr. Abdul Hari Giad Kohmeme (ph), I'm very sorry, but we are out of time. Yes, we are out of time. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

That's all the time we have for this edition of INSIGHT. The news continues on CNN.



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