VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu, traveling with U.S. troops in central Iraq, reports U.S. forces are in substantial control of the key city of Najaf. In an interview Tuesday with VOA's Al Pessin, she describes the importance of the operation and the reception U.S. forces have received in the city.
Ryu: I just heard from one of the brigade commanders of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne, and he says that after a night of air strikes by the U.S. Air Force, aided by the 101st Apaches Helicopters, the 1st Brigade has pushed into Najaf and is trying, right now, to secure the town. The commander, his name is Colonel Ben Hodges, says that local people have been spotting Iraqi troops and police leaving the city all day long, and they were able to help some of the American soldiers come in and try to secure the town as best as they could. I'm not quite sure if the entire town is being occupied by U.S. soldiers at the moment, that is still unclear, but a good portion of this city is trying to gain control and to secure and make sure that there are no paramilitary elements still left in the town.
Of course, the overnight strikes did target the Ba'ath Party members and the members of the Fedayeen. These are Saddam Hussein's paramilitary members who have been harassing U.S. troops in this area for quite some time, and apparently a lot of that harassment has stopped. The Americans, with the help of the locals, have also found a large cache of arms. In one spot they report that they found two 120-millimeter mortars and about 2,000 rounds. That's quite a haul. U.S. soldiers say also that locals have pointed out that part of the city is mined; there is still danger there.
After days of resistance, as I spoke about, this time the U.S. soldiers are saying that the reception from the local people has been very, very different. People are bringing out their children, and the people are waving and smiling at the soldiers, so perhaps things are getting a little bit better. They don't feel the threat from the Fedayeen and from the Ba'ath Party officials there as much.
The city of Najaf is holy to the Shiite Muslims. There is a golden mosque in the city that can be seen from several kilometers away, and the Shiites believe that mosque is where the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law Ali is buried, so that was a very, very sensitive area. Colonel Hodges says the U.S. air strikes were very, very careful not to damage the mosque, and we were told that there is no damage to the structure.
Pessin: Alisha, you've been following this very closely. What would you say is the strategic significance of having the coalition forces apparently now take control of all, or much of, the town of Najaf?
Ryu: Well, Najaf is one of the largest cities here in central Iraq, south of Baghdad. It is in direct line with the area where the U.S. forces need to go, the most likely avenue of attack into Baghdad, and so it almost acts as the rear of the force that will be, at some point, making the assault into Baghdad.
So it's very important that they have that area secure, that there's not going to be any more disruptions to their line of communications, that everything will go smoothly and not have this kind of harassment by the Fedayeen paramilitary irregulars that have been coming out and causing quite a bit of disruption, slowing down the advance. So, in terms of the coalition Allied offensive, it's quite important to have these towns secure and to make sure that there are going to be no direct threats coming from those cities.
Pessin: Alisha, on Monday you reported about probing strikes, I believe you called them, by coalition forces on Republican Guard units that are guarding the southern approaches to Baghdad. Has that sort of thing continued as well today? And what other sort of activities have there been?
Ryu: Well, they certainly have had some activity in that sense. The probing attacks, I believe, have been ongoing. It was not just yesterday. There have been air strikes, as well as artillery attacks, air assaults by Apaches, what they call "deep attacks."
This has all been trying to batter those mixed elements of the five Republican divisions that are believed to be manning a sort of southern arc in front of Baghdad. Now they are bracing for a decisive drive in this nearly two-week-old campaign.
There is no estimate of Iraqi troop strength there, but the Iraqi divisions normally comprise of about 12,000 to 15,000 troops. And after days of those kinds of air strikes, the Iraqis have shown that they are losing quite a few of those troops, of those tanks. They're seen reinforcing the Republican Guards by these probing ground attacks by U.S.-led forces.
The Iraqi military is bringing down, from the north, elements of Hamurabi and Nebuchadnezzer divisions, perhaps troops from Al-Ayda and Ad-Naan divisions are also believed to be placed south of the capital.
There's a bit of a chess game that is being played. No one knows exactly what he has in mind in terms of defensive posture to guard Baghdad, but there is certainly a great deal of activity in terms of the Republican Guard trying to make that defensive ring around Baghdad.