VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu tells London Bureau chief Al Pessin about her conversation with senior U.S. generals commanding coalition troops in Baghdad.
Pessin: Alisha, I know you had an opportunity to make a very interesting tour of central Baghdad today. Tell us what that was like.
Ryu: I am here with the commanding general of the army in Iraq, Lieutenant General William Wallace, and the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, General Buford Blount. What General Blount wanted to do was to show General Wallace exactly where all the fighting has happened the previous two days around Baghdad.
And I can tell you that the fighting is not entirely over. There are areas that are still very, very unsafe. It is not very explosive. But there were explosions and we heard numerous gunshots. There was lots of activity in those areas where they have been taking a lot of fire, particularly that area where the 2nd Brigade is based in downtown Baghdad. There is a series of high storey buildings on the other side of the Tigris River that you can see where they have been taking fire from, and they have returned fire, and there are holes in many, many buildings across the way, and there's debris everywhere. Lots and lots of civilian vehicles, as well as tanks, and the streets are very much a war zone.
Pessin: Alisha, I know you are with a military convoy, but were you able to talk to any Iraqi citizens as you went through town.
Ryu: We did not see a whole lot of people. The civilians, for the most part, have stayed away from the fighting. We don't know exactly where they are, but the civilians that had come out, we did get a chance to just wave and say hello to them. We were not allowed to speak to them directly because the security was too tight and there was no way to really interact with them. They were very friendly. They were giving us thumbs-up signs, they were holding up white flags, and bringing out children, and they were meeting the convoy in a very, very friendly manner. So I think the generals were very glad to see that kind of reception.
Pessin: What are they doing to try to eliminate the last vestiges of resistance in Baghdad, while also trying to protect the civilian population?
Ryu: Well, this is a big problem at the moment for the commanders here. They really need a lot more force than what they have. This is a huge city. There are five million people inside Baghdad, and to provide security for the troops as well as the civilians, and to make sure that humanitarian aid is coming through, and to make sure that the power and water and those kinds of things are restored, they do need some degree of security. They admit freely that this is not over yet, that they are still in a fighting mode, that they are going to have to have a while before this all comes to some sort of a stable end, and they are not there yet. And they admit that.
Pessin: Alisha, I am wondering what part of the city you are in because, although, as you point out, the U.S. military officials are saying it is not over and there is still resistance. Certainly on Wednesday we saw lots of people on the streets of Baghdad celebrating and knocking down Saddam Hussein statues and pictures and so on. Are you in a different part of Baghdad? Or has the scene just changed that much from yesterday to today?
Ryu: Well, it is not so much a change, I do not think, in the sense of I think that there are isolated pockets of areas where people are celebrating much more freely than in other places in Baghdad. I was in Saddam Hussein's residence area, where his presidential palace is, where the parade stadium is. I mean, that is the center of Baghdad. And I can tell you, in that section, there are hardly any people around. The roads were deserted. People that came out were basically told to keep their distance. So I think what happened since yesterday was that the military has come in and put up a lot more security in there.
There is a Bradley fighting vehicle and an M-1 tank almost on every street corner that you can see. I mean, the whole city is blanketed with tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, so the security has been dramatically increased since yesterday. And I think this is to show people that they cannot just go on a free for all, that some degree of stability has to be maintained in this city.
Now, having said that, I did notice one section of town that we drove through on Highway 8, going toward the center of Baghdad, where there were people running, and it appeared that they were looting some of the stores in that area. And I could not see very well from my vantage point inside a Humvee jeep, but there was quite a bit of people bringing things out like refrigerators and stoves and clothing and all kinds of things like that on carts and whatever else they can carry with them. And so these things were moving out of stores, and people did appear like they were looting, but that was a very isolated section of town, and not everywhere was like that.
Pessin: And you are saying that this increased security in the city is in part to bring an end to that looting that we saw so much of on Wednesday.
Ryu: I think so. I think they probably overnight made a decision to place a lot more armed military personnel and vehicles on the streets to make sure they don't lose control of the situation.
Pessin: Now, Alisha, you used an interesting phrase. You referred to "isolated pockets of celebration." In the past, we have only heard about "isolated pockets of resistance." You seem to be painting a picture of Baghdad that is less secure from a military standpoint, and more subdued from a civilian standpoint, than the television pictures were showing the world on Wednesday.
Ryu: And I am. I do not know exactly where the television cameras were when they took those photos. I am still trying to figure out exactly where they were. My personal eyewitness account, there is none of this kind of wild celebration going out on the streets. We drove around, through the center of Baghdad, almost throughout the perimeter. Now, it could be that, once again, the presence of all these extra armored personnel carriers and tanks out on the road and that kind of thing has dampened people's moods to go out and really celebrate if they wanted to, the way they would have liked to, perhaps, but I do not see it. I just do not see where that kind of exuberance is at the moment. It is certainly not city-wide.