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Thursday, April 8, 2004 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Veteran White House Correspondent Helen Thomas On Bush...
2004-04-08

As Rice Testifies, Death Toll Rises In Iraq

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Randall Robinson, A close friend of the Aristides. Last week he was part of the delegation that accompanied President Aristide from the Central African Republic to Jamaica. He is also the founder of TransAfrica and the author of several books. He joins us on the line from his home in St. Kitts in the Caribbean.

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As the nation watches Condoleezza Rice testify before the 9/11 Commission, resistance against the U.S. occupation of Iraq has spread across the country from as north as Kirkuk down to southern Iraq. We go to Baghdad to get a report from the ground from independent reporter May Ying Welsh. [includes rush transcript]

Resistance against the U.S. occupation of Iraq has spread across the country from as north as Kirkuk down to southern Iraq.

The U.S.-occupying forces have lost control of at least three cities, Najaf, Karbala and Kufa to followers of the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Facing the increasing resistance, the Pentagon signaled on Wednesday that it would probably delay bringing home as many as 25,000 soldiers from the First Armored Division as scheduled.

At least 40 U.S. soldiers have died in the past week–the most of any week since the fall of Baghdad.

The fiercest fighting occurred in Falluja where Sunni Iraqis still maintain control of three quarters of the city despite a large U.S. offensive involving over 2,000 Marines. On Wednesday the U.S. purposely bombed a mosque that they claimed was being used by the resistance. Witnesses said 40 people died but the military said only one person was killed in the attack.

The head of Fallujah’s main hospital reports at least 280 Iraqis have died since the U.S. sealed off the city. 400 have been wounded.

The Independent of London is reporting the US has blocked all traffic from entering Fallujah, including ambulances. Fallujah has become a leading symbol of Iraq nationalism among both Sunni and Shiites.

In Baghdad hundreds of Iraqis lined up in the streets to give blood to the victims in Fallujah.

One Iraqi told reporters, "We are giving our blood and money here now, but this is just the start. We will give our souls. This will be worse than Vietnam. The Shia and Sunni will fight together."

Sadr also issued a statement Wednesday making a comparison to Vietnam. He said "I call upon the American people to stand beside their brethren, the Iraqi people, who are suffering an injustice by your rulers and the occupying army, to help them in the transfer of power to honest Iraqis. Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers." Sadr also urged the Kuwaiti government to expel the U.S. military from that country.

More signs emerged that Sunnis and Shias are joining to fight the US occupation. Posters of the Shiite leader Sadr have been pasted throughout Sunni areas of Baghdad. Shiite clerics are urging followers support their Sunni brethren in Fallujah.

In Washington, the Bush administration continued to downplay the Iraqi uprising. At a press conference on Wednesday Donald Rumsfeld said, the fighting was just the work of "thugs, gangs and terrorists," and not a popular uprising. General Myers added that "it’s not a Shiite uprising. Sadr has a very small following."

But the New York Times reports otherwise. Experts within the intelligence community said the U.S. is facing a broad-based Shiite uprising even if the rebellion has not been explicitly supported by the country’s chief Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

On Wednesday Sistani did his first official statement on the recent uprising. He called for a peaceful resolution but said, "We condemn the way the occupying forces are dealing with current events."

On Capitol Hill senior Senator Robert Byrd called for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq but Rumsfeld vowed to stay the course.

  • May Ying Welsh, independent reporter speaking from Baghdad.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Resistance against the U.S. Occupation of Iraq has spread across the country from as far north as Kirkuk to southern Iraq. The U.S. Occupying forces have lost control of at least three cities, Najaf, Karbala and Kufa to followers of the Shia leader, Muqtada al Sadr. The U.S. is now batting Sunni and Shiite fighters in cities across the country. In Baghdad, once quiet areas, such as Ademia, fighting has broken out between Sunnis and the U.S. Yesterday late we got a call from independent reporter May Ying Welsh who was in the midst of a battle.

MAY YING WELSH: Right now I’m in the Osemia section of Baghdad. It’s a historic Sunni area with very narrow and winding streets. The streets are so tight it’s hard for two cars to pass each other. Prowling these streets are scores of Fedayeen, young man with their faces covered with scarves, carrying weapons, some of them are wearing soccer jerseys with the word Iraq emblazoned on them. On the other side are the U.S. Forces who pulled up in several places in the neighborhood. Including ironically the royal tombs where the former kings of Iraq are buried.

I spoke to one of these Fedayeen, his friends were with him as well. He was only carrying a small pistol, but his friends had some more serious weaponry. They had rocket-propelled grenades and A.K. 47’s and they told me they’re planning to fight until dawn. One Fedayeen told me, we are not afraid, but the Americans are very afraid, because they don’t have a goal and we do. I asked him what is your goal and he said, my goal is martyrdom and the liberation of Iraq. He said, but they don’t know why they’re here. They also said that they will fight to kick the Americans out of Iraq no matter how long it took.

Right now, I can hear an ongoing battle. You can hear the huge boom of the R.P.G.'s when they fire. You can hear tank fire, which sounds like a bomb dropping. First are the machine gunfire, small arms fire. There are helicopter gun ships continuously circling the sites over this neighborhood. Even despite all of this, there's some children playing in the street, and people sitting on their doorsteps, because people want to see what’s going on, and they don’t seem to be afraid of the Fedayeen. In fact they speak freely with them. It’s the Americans they’re afraid of, so as soon as the American tanks come or they start seeing Americans coming down the street, everybody runs into their homes.

This whole battle started right as the sun was going down. As soon as the sun started going down, we started to see the Fedayeen start going out into the streets, and we saw the an American tank preceded by several soldiers on foot. I guess they were snipers. They seemed very well trained. They were — kind of, running back and forth and hiding behind things — were walking in front of that tank. Then the clashes began.

This area is a very, very Sunni area, which has been heaving with resentment for the occupation for the past year, but which has been relatively quiet until now. The clashes here started two days ago. Last night it was quiet. But they started up again tonight.

I spent time with two families in this neighborhood tonight, and they said very similar things. One of them said, the reason why they entered Osimia because it’s a patriotic Islamic area. They said, the Americans don’t want the Iraqi patriotism, and they hate Islam. Another one said something similar, and he said — the father, the head of the household–he said, we can’t be victorious over the Americans because their weapons are so powerful, but over the passing of time, they’ll take so many losses here, they will be defeated just like they were in Somalia and Vietnam.

I also spoke with the Immam of the main mosque here. Which is a very very old mosque, it’s more than a thousand years old, the Abu Hanifa mosque. Sheikh Moaid Ibrahim al Azami told me, that the Americans are lost in Iraq. They’re lost in the darkness because of their arrogance.

Earlier today, we were able it see thousands of people lining up at his mosque to give blood, food supplies and money to people of Fallujah. Literally thousands of people came to this mosque because they had been asked to give as much blood as possible. The atmosphere in the mosque as the sun was going down is incredibly tense. The Immam was sitting in his office, shuffling papers nervously and many aides were sitting around him counting the money they had gathered throughout the day from residents. He told me that he collected the medical supplies and food supplies and other things, perhaps this will anger the Americans and they’re going to take revenge on this neighborhood. It was only a few — I should say minutes — after he uttered those words that we started to see the American tanks coming into the neighborhoods preceded by several snipers on foot and began to engage the Fedayeen in this neighborhood.

The Immam of the mosque told me if the Americans are not wise, the situation had get worse and more bloody. He fully expects that if the Americans continue to use force, this will spiral downward.

Now, another significant development is that one of the most important groups in Iraq, the most important group for Sunni Muslims in Iraq, issued a statement today, of demands. They haven’t called as a group, for jihad, at this time, but they have issued some demands. Those demands are they want the United Nations to condemn the occupation. They want a general strike throughout the entire country of Iraq until U.S. Forces stop the siege on Fallujah. And they want a hunger strike in mosques until Americans stop this war. This particular group, the Union of Islamic Scholars. is a very powerful and influential group for Sunni Muslims of Iraq. Most Sunni Muslim leaders are members of this group, or follow this group. So this is a very important statement coming from the Sunni Muslims of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to May Ying Welsh. She is in the midst of a battle in Aramiyah, just outside of Baghdad. You talk about the Fedayeen. Can you describe who they are.

MAY YING WELSH: All of Fedayeen are young men. It’s not possible to find out their names or where they’re from, because they’re trying to conceal their identities. They have covered their faces with scarves. They only come out at night. These battles do not occur during the day. The Fedayeen don’t want their identities to be revealed. Also they don’t want to endanger, women, children, people that are in the street during the day when the streets are very crowded.

I asked one of the Fedayeen, "Where are you from? Are you from this neighborhood?" His answer to that question was, I’m from Iraq. That’s all he would say. So, you know, these people are secretive about how they gather, how many there are, where they are from, things like that. He wouldn’t answer questions about how many of them there were. We hear rumors that, you know, that 100 people from Jai Shamkti the militia following the Shia leader, Muqtada al Sadr came over here last night to help, now that’s just a rumor. It’s really impossible to confirm because people don’t want to reveal — for operational security — how they’re fighting the Americans, with what means, the level of their equipment, things like that. But I can just say anecdotally, from what I can see, they don’t have very heavy weapons to go up against the Americans with. The best kind of weaponry they have are rocket propelled grenades which are capable of deterring tanks.

The one Fedayeen I spoke to only had a small pistol, and some of his friends an A.K-47. I think that their attitude is not that — they’re very well aware that their weapons are not a match for the American weapons. This is something we hear repeated over and over again. The Iraqis are well aware that their weapons don’t match the American weapon, but their attitude is, that it’s their country, and they have a cause they’re fighting for, and that is eventually going to be their strongest weapon; that they have a cause they believe in, and the Americans don’t. That’s what I keep hearing over and over from them. They feel that they can tire the Americans out and they’ll leave.

One of the neighbors here told me that, what’s going on here, he described it as a general revolution against the Americans. He said that they don’t have enough forces, they don’t know what to do. He said they don’t have enough forces and they’re afraid. He said they didn’t expect things to reach this point. They didn’t expect the Sunnis and Shias to unite this way.

Like I was saying before, Osamia has been a quiet neighborhood for the past year, even though the residents here have been generally more angry with the occupation than other neighborhoods of Baghdad.

Other neighborhoods of Baghdad, you can find people who thought the occupation was something good and who want the Americans to stay. Because they think that the Americans are preventing the country from sliding into civil war. You can find people like that in other neighborhoods. Not this neighborhood. This is a very, very — what can I say? This is a very Islamic neighborhood and a very anti-american neighborhood.

So, these people have always been against the occupation. But they didn’t rise up until they saw the Shias rising up. And that’s another thing people have said to me here. When they saw the Shias rising up, the Shias who in no one expected to rise up and who everyone expected to say quiet. They felt guilty, why are we staying quiet when our Shia brothers are fighting the Americans. That was the spark that pushed them, along with the siege of fallujah, which pushed them to fight the Americans now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to May Ying Welsh, in Aramiyah, outside Baghdad. The U.S. Administration has been calling the people who are resisting "thugs" and "terrorists." Your response?

MAY YING WELSH: The response of most of the people in this neighborhood to that would definitely be, how can we be thugs and terrorists when we’re defending our country. I mean, yesterday I spoke with a man who lost his son and two of his nephews in the U.S bombing of Iraq a year ago. One of the points that he was really, really angry about was, he felt angry that America was calling the war on Iraq or the occupation of Iraq, part of the War on Terror. He said, how can they call me a terrorist when I’m defending my country, and they have invaded my country. I didn’t invade their country. He said, anyone who was defending their country, cannot be described as a terrorist. They should be described as a patriot. He asked the question, which all Iraqis ask when we bring up these kind of things, how would America feel if Iraq went and occupied America. Would they try to kick the Iraqis out or would they just say, welcome, come on in and stay. So, Iraqis definitely would bridle at the idea that they are the thugs and terrorists, when in fact they’re the ones who are occupied.

AMY GOODMAN: And news in the last days, is that the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting not against each other, but together against the Americans? Can you comment on this?

MAY YING WELSH: Well, I have been hearing from both Sunnis and Shias a lot of talk about a joint resistance. Yesterday, last night, I went to Shola which is a very poor Shia neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. I spoke with some people there, and they told me that there are now ongoing contacts and coordinations between Muqtada al Sadr, the Shia cleric, militia, and his supporters, and the resistance in Fallujah and other parts of the country —–the Sunni parts of Baghdad, and other Sunni parts of the country. He said there’s ongoing contact and coordination. He said it’s just a matter of time until there’s a joint plan for resistance.

I asked him when do you think that the joint plan for resistance could come about, because honestly, you know, Sunnis and shies in this country, they talk about how they’re one and everybody is one and there’s no difference between us, and we’re all Muslims. The truth is when you get them alone, they all start saying how awful the other ones are.

The Shias start saying oh, all terrorists come from the Sunnis, and Sunnis start saying, oh the Shias, they’re all the looters, all the people that do the looting and stealing and crime in Iraq come from the Shias. They say terrible things about each other, basically. The unity I think, between them is based on a mutual anger against the occupation of the U.S. Forces, not on a whole lot of mutual feelings.

I think that there is right now — i don’t know what can we call it, a confluence of interests going on between the Sunnis and Shias. It’s a patriotic confluence of interests to kick the Americans out. How deep it is? If the Americans actually left, I don’t know. I can’t say that this place wouldn’t then just fall into a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Independent reporter, May Ying Welsh in Baghdad. This is Democracy Now!. When we come back, the legendary white house reporter, Helen Thomas. Stay with us.

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