Patrolling Baghdad's Perilous Haifa Street

Madeleine Brand talks with Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor who has been on patrol with U.S. and Iraqi military forces on Baghdad's dangerous Haifa Street.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to Iraq where about 1,000 American Marines, soldiers, and sailors today are engaged in the new offensive around the western town of Hadithah. The offensive follows a deadly week in which 18 US troops have died in insurgent violence. Meanwhile in Baghdad, in the Haifa district, US soldiers and Iraqi national guardsmen continue to patrol the main thoroughfare known as Haifa Street. The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson has been imbedded with the US Army unit that's patrolling Haifa Street, and he joins me now.

Scott, give us a sense of Haifa Street. What kind of neighborhoods are you going through?

Mr. SCOTT PETERSON (The Christian Science Monitor): Well, this is a neighborhood that was formerly full of supporters of Saddam Hussein. There are high-rise apartment blocks that were built by the regime and were handed out as patronage, but there are also some slum areas on both sides behind those high-rise buildings on Haifa Street.

But one thing, though, that has been remarkable, of course, is while this area of Baghdad has become an insurgent stronghold and was an insurgent stronghold throughout most of last year, it has now been reclaimed, not just by American forces, but now it has also come under the almost exclusive control of Iraqi forces. So quite a test case.

BRAND: Right. And how effective have those Iraqi forces been?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, the Iraqis have been under control here for the last couple of months. And from what I've seen, having taken two foot patrols with them through this area--one was a joint patrol that I was on with Americans and with Iraqis, and another one was solely with Iraqis--it was remarkable the confidence that the Iraqis displayed, and it was also remarkable the relationship that they had with people there on the ground. And I think while we did definitely see some people glowering and that kind of thing, I think that the majority--certainly everybody that I spoke to, but I imagine also the majority of people there, have been grateful that the level of violence has dropped off in Haifa Street. And with those Iraqi forces on the ground, they've got snipers up in several of the buildings 24 hours a day. They've also got mounted patrols spending about, you know, half the day, 12 hours per day or so traveling to that area. And it really has been, at least as far as people told me, a very reassuring prospect, the fact that they were there.

BRAND: Well, is the problem that they have put such a large force there on that one particular street in that one particular area and perhaps pushed the violence into other areas?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I think that that's what's happened. I mean, for those--you know, there really was a very strong insurgent stronghold here. There was a kind of a natural bed for them, if you will, among kind of former regime supporters. And what's happened is, is that some have been killed, some have been captured and some of them have been forced to flee. And, of course, you know, they've been forced to flee to other places. There are other insurgent strongholds in Baghdad: Endora(ph) to the south; just across the river in an area called Kadhamiya; and, of course, you know, there's still Fallujah, which is there. They're not quite so many insurgents there now, of course, but there are lots of other places where they've shifted. And this is one of the problems--I think, part of the problem with dealing with this insurgency generally is you squeeze in one place and it simply emerges in another place.

BRAND: There have been reports that Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is seriously wounded. What credibility do you give that report?

Mr. PETERSON: Well, I'm not sure. I don't think we're going to know anything about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until we actually see his own supporters mourning at a funeral. You'll recall back even before the US invasion in 2003 when Colin Powell sat before the UN Security Council and made the US case for the invasion, and almost his only argument in terms of a connection between the Saddam Hussein regime and al-Qaeda and terrorism was the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Now he may have been in Baghdad, but what Colin Powell also said was that he had been in Baghdad to have a leg operated on and actually amputated. Now, of course, it turns out that this wasn't true at all.

And so, you know, any kind of information--we've heard several times that he's been killed. We've heard several different times that he's been wounded and injured. And I mean, I wouldn't even discount the possibility that this last Internet message that supposedly came out, you know, from his supporters asking, you know, the Islamic world to pray for him because he's injured--you know, I wouldn't be surprised if this were some disinformation coming from the US or even the Iraqi national government side with an aim toward undermining the insurgency. I mean, of course, if you're, you know, involved in an insurgency and your leader has been so instrumental in galvanizing support for it, then--you know, then if it were seen that he were weak or if he were seen to be dying, then that would certainly, you know, help the US and Iraqi sides. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if this turned out in the end to be some kind of disinformation.

BRAND: The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson in Baghdad. Thanks, Scott.

Mr. PETERSON: Thank you.

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