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The Milestone

What follows is an excerpt from a CNN news program hosted by Rick Sanchez on March 23, the day on which it was announced that four thousand American soldiers had been killed in Iraq. Mr. Sanchez talked to Michael Ware, Baghdad correspondent for CNN, and Martha Zoller, host of The Martha Zoller Show.

Rick Sanchez: …We’ve got Michael Ware now. He’s standing by in Baghdad, ready to file this report as we get word of this milestone being reached.

Michael, perhaps you can share, since you’ve been there so long and you’ve been one of the few reporters who’ve really been on the inside of this from the very beginning. Is this [four thousand US soldiers killed] more than just a number and, if so, why?

Michael Ware, CNN correspondent: Well, Rick, I think it’s undeniable that when the US military struck this harrowing mark of four thousand deaths, that does not go without some kind of symbolism. It comes just days after this war’s fifth anniversary. When these four soldiers were killed, we’re talking about perhaps only eight hours ago, here in the southern part of the capital Baghdad, that really does say something.

You cannot help but take a moment to pause and to reflect. I’m sure soldiers and commanders throughout the nation will be taking that moment as well. Four thousand American deaths now in this war that continues to grind away where there seems to be so little insight that suggests it’s coming to an end at any time soon.

That, perhaps, is the darkest reflection of all. Four thousand deaths and very little so far has changed. We’re seeing success from the military’s surge here in Baghdad, where they flooded the capital with 30,000 extra combat troops; where they’ve cut deals with their former enemies among the Sunni insurgents; where anti-American rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is now finding political accommodation from the US military following the cleric’s declaration of a cease-fire.

So while there are gains that have been made, there’s still nothing to say that anything is getting any better in a real sense; that the fundamental building blocks of this war have been changed. And to now have the four thousand American deaths really is a chilling moment.

Sanchez: Let me ask you, Michael. Michael, I just want to interrupt you for a moment, because since we’re talking of numbers, I want to ask you about something that rarely is talked about on network television in the United States. And that is, the four thousand Americans is serious enough. But is it your understanding that the number of dead Iraqis would, what, double, triple…? What is that number? Do you know it?

Ware: Well, Rick, no one can give you a figure of the number of Iraqi souls that have been lost in the five years so far of this conflict. But it’s exponentially greater than two or three or even ten times this terrible number of American casualties. We’re talking about—on conservative estimates between 80,000 to 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives.

And that’s not to mention more than four million Iraqis are displaced from their homes. Two million are lost here in Iraq wanting to return home. Two million more plus are beyond this country’s border and there seems little hope that any of them [will] return.

And the entire social fabric of this country has been torn asunder with a legacy of this war that it’s now divided along sectarian lines, Sunni versus Shiite, when it never was before. Not even under Saddam. So the impact and the toll that this conflict has taken on these countries is almost immeasurable.

Sanchez: Michael, if you allow us for a minute. I want to bring Martha [Zoller]. Martha, you’re shaking your head while you’re listening to Michael’s report. Is it because of a disagreement?

Martha Zoller: I really did disagree on some of the issues…. I have been into some provincial areas and many of the provincial governments…are functioning. Baghdad is continuing to be a problem but better. And I just think that’s the story that’s not being reported.

Sanchez: That it really is a success? Is that what you’re saying?

Zoller: That the provincial governments are functioning the way they should in most….

Sanchez: Michael, how about that? That the provincial governments are now functioning much better and, in many ways, the way they should be functioning.

Ware: Well, there are a number of things we can say about that. Certainly on paper, there is a thin veneer of success in the fact that the provincial governments, well some of them, are operating in the way that they are. But let’s look at it this way. Most of those provincial governments are operating in that way because they are so heavily supported by Iran.

We’re talking about provincial governments in the south where there’s very little Sunni–Shiite divide at all because it’s a largely inclusively Shiite population, where they’re ruled by political parties and paramilitary factions either created in Iran during exile from Saddam or which have been created after this conflict began by Iran’s Kurdish force or other political organizations within Iran.*

The other provinces that are functioning so well here in Iraq are the Kurdish regions in the north, where they essentially have a parallel government to the central government in Iraq. They have their own territory, their own parliament, their own representatives,…defense, and foreign affairs. So there’s a duplication here. They’ve only recently been able to grit their teeth in the Kurdish north and fly the Iraqi national flag rather than a Kurdish flag.

So, yes, in one very limited sense they are operating but, come on, let’s look at the reality. They are consolidating their power, weakening the central government. And…Anbar province is in the control now of the former Sunni insurgency, [which has] cut a deal with the Americans. They are functioning but it’s the Iraqi Islamic party which has ties to al-Qaeda and which can barely deliver any kind of services or distribute the budget that it has. So there is progress but let’s look at it in the big picture in its true context.

  1. *

    Editors’ Note: Ware’s comments reflect the situation as of Sunday, March 23. On March 25, heavy fighting broke out in Basra in response to an Iraqi government offensive against Shiite militias allied with Moqtada al-Sadr, leading to a week of violence in Basra and in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad during which more than four hundred people were killed. On March 30, al-Sadr ordered his followers to stop military operations, following negotiations in Iran mediated by Iranian officials, according to press reports.

    In a report on March 27 about the fighting then taking place, Ware added the following comment:

    In Basra, we have a whole rainbow alliance of Iranian-backed or Iranian-linked or Iranian-supported militias. Now, the provincial government is controlled by one group. Now, they’re not completely aligned with Iran, but they’re not separate from Iran. The streets, in many ways, are dominated by the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada al-Sadr who has links to Iran but is not beholden to Iran. Yet, this central government, who is launching this offensive, is very much in so many ways, through its key factions, tied intricately with Iran. Yet, America must inevitably throw its lot in with this government. So this is a very complicated picture. There are so many games at play here we can’t even begin to describe them.

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