Slow Going for U.S. Forces South of Baghdad

U.S. troops in the region south of Baghdad are slowly clearing insurgents from strongholds along the Tigris River. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch says the mission is hampered by insufficient numbers of Iraqi security forces.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The effort to secure Baghdad has led American troops outside that city. They're moving southward along one of the great rivers of history, and their commander is Major General Rick Lynch.

Major General RICK LYNCH (Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Iraq): When you look at the map, you know, everything south and east of Baghdad, that's all ours. And it does extend from the Euphrates River in the west, south of Baghdad, all the way to the Iran-Iraq border in the Wasit province. Essentially, the size of our battle station is the size of the state of West Virginia.

INSKEEP: Right now, inside that area, the troops are following a river that splits Baghdad roughly in two, and then continues south - the Tigris. American troops have been moving deliberately along its banks.

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: And I've got forces all along the river, both on the eastside and the westside of the river, starting at Baghdad and working south. And the intent is to take those places we know where the enemy has been storing terrorist networks. Well, we're doing a very deliberate clearance operation as we go, but we haven't gone more than about, you know, six kilometers.

INSKEEP: Six kilometers in 12 days.

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Yeah.

INSKEEP: How important is it to secure that area south of Baghdad?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Oh, it's critical. Acts of violence in Baghdad probably originated somewhere else. So we're blocking the accelerants of violence into Baghdad. That's our primary task and purpose.

INSKEEP: And are you facing an enemy that will fight you directly?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: You know, it's interesting. You know, and I - most of us have had multiple tours now in Iraq, and what I see now is an enemy that's more aggressive than he has been in the past. I believe that as we surged, he surged to bring in the fight to us. So I have 26 patrol bases across my battle space. And over the last month or so, three of those patrol bases have been attacked -

INSKEEP: When you say a complex, dedicated attack, you mean that they're actually charging you?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Oh, yeah. I just described one of the attacks on one of the with small arms. They have a IED out for one of our dismounted patrols, so the IED goes off. And then what they tried to do is maneuver a truck loaded with explosives close enough to our patrol base so they could detonate it and then destroy the patrol base.

INSKEEP: Do you have any concern that as you clear the Tigris River Valley, that any enemy forces that survive are simply going to line up on some other route to Baghdad?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Yeah. I mean, we're looking very closely. As General Odierno asked for the 3rd Division to come in, he said block the accelerance of violence into Baghdad. So we studied where those routes were. The issue here is troops to task. That's always the issue. And there has to be sufficient Iraqi security forces to hold these areas that we're clearing.

INSKEEP: And you don't have enough?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: No. There's not enough now. The Iraqi government has to continue to grow and develop their security forces so they can have that sustained security presence that this place needs.

INSKEEP: As you move forward, as you move down the Tigris, how do you measure success?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: You measure success based on control in key terrain, weapons caches that you've taken away, key individuals that you have either killed or captured. You know, for example, this deepen into the operation, we've killed or captured about 180 of the insurgents in our battle space. We've taken out over 50 weapons caches.

INSKEEP: Before you started this operation moving down river along the Tigris, what kind of American presence had been in that area?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: None. And there are no Iraqi police in that area. And there's limited Iraqi army in the area, and that's why the enemies been able to say, here is my sanctuary.

INSKEEP: As your troops have gone from town to town, has anybody come out of their house and said where have you been?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Yeah. As a matter of fact, they have. And they say, we're glad you're here. And then they say, are you staying? Because what you can't do is have the local population afraid that you're going to come in, and stir things up, and then leave and allow al-Qaida to come back in and kill their families, destroy their property.

INSKEEP: How do you reassure people? Because, as you point out, they're making a life or death decision whether they seem cooperative with you or not.

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: We just have to assure them based on deeds, not words, that we're there to stay. So I don't believe people appreciate the complexity of this situation. I always talk about three-dimensional chess in the dark. And I believe that's an understatement.

INSKEEP: And do you think that you have time - given the political timelines in Baghdad and the political timelines in the United States - do you think you have time to complete that three-dimensional chess game that you're playing right now?

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: Yeah. We've continued to work through the mission that we've been given. And there's no one that I work for that's saying Lynch, you got to get this done by this day. So I know there's big debates about tactical clocks and political clocks, but I'm spending none of my time focused on that. I'm spending all of my time focused on the mission I've got with the forces that I have available.

INSKEEP: Major General Rick Lynch, thanks very much.

Maj. Gen. LYNCH: My pleasure. Take care, Steve.

INSKEEP: General Lynch commands American troops working their way south along the Tigris River.

Now right in the path of the American forces is a city called Salman Pak, from which there is grim news this morning. Iraqi authorities said today they found the bodies of 20 men beheaded and left on the banks of the Tigris.

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