Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday defended the level of force being used by U.S. troops in Iraq to dislodge rebel fighters from positions in Fallujah and other major towns. Mr. Powell discussed Iraq with fellow foreign ministers on the sidelines of the OSCE conference on anti-Semitism.
The U.S. military's use of aircraft against insurgents dug in at the Sunni bastion city of Fallujah west of Baghdad has been broadcast by Arab satellite television networks and widely criticized in the Arab world.
Answering the criticism in comments to reporters, Mr. Powell said the United States is being very careful in trying to spare holy sites and innocent civilians from harm in the fighting in Fallujah, and in other engagements in Najaf and Karbala.
However, he said the task is made difficult by what he termed murderers and thugs who have taken refuge and been operating from mosques and other sensitive sites in Fallujah.
"When individuals who are murderers, who are thugs, who are terrorists, go into holy places, places they say are holy, for the purpose of shooting at and killing innocent people, killing our servicemen and women who are there to restore order, then this is a desecration of a holy place," he said. "And we have an obligation to protect our men as they are pursuing the objective of returning the city of Fallujah to its citizens. And I hope people will understand that. We're being as careful as we can."
Mr. Powell said there would be no problem if gunmen were not using holy places to store arms, to use them as observation points, and shoot at U.S. troops and local civilians.
The secretary discussed Iraq in a series of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the OSCE Anti-Semitism conference.
He said his Polish counterpart, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, assured him that the Warsaw government intends to stand with the United States and keep its 2,400-member troop commitment in Iraq, this despite the withdrawal last week of contingents from Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
After meeting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Mr. Powell said the U.S.-led coalition intends to return as much sovereignty as it is prepared to handle to the interim Iraqi government due to assume power July 1.
The secretary said a U.S. commander would stay in overall charge of unified coalition and Iraqi security forces after the handover of sovereignty, and that he believes the Iraqis expect, and want, such an arrangement and that it will be mutually agreed upon.
He said there are historical precedents for this including Germany after the World War II and in South Korea after the Korean War of the 1950s.