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Arson Attack Suspected at Iraqi Headquarters

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A big military offensive is under way in western Iraq. Marines and Iraqi government forces are battling insurgents in an operation that began on Wednesday. That same day, 14 Marines and their interpreter were killed in that area. The operation is part of a wider effort to rein in the insurgency, as Iraq's transitional government presses forward with the process of writing a constitution. From Baghdad, NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

With its lush palm groves and farmlands, the Euphrates River cuts a sharp green line through Iraq's western desert as it flows down from Syria. This and the towns hugging its banks have become the latest prize to be fought over in the war here. Brigadier General Donald Alston, reached on one of Iraq's poor-quality mobile phone lines, is spokesman for the US-led troops.

Brigadier General DONALD ALSTON (Spokesperson): You can tell how much the terrorists need this land. This is important to them. Our intention is to kill or capture them in order to eliminate that threat from those areas.

REEVES: Twenty-four Marines died fighting over this territory in the last week--the bulk of them when their armored vehicle hit an unusually powerful roadside bomb outside the town of Hadithah. This was a heavy blow for the Marines, but one that Marine Colonel Bob Chase says hasn't dampened their determination.

Colonel BOB CHASE (US Marine Corps): This is a war, and the Marines come here knowing it's a war. Every loss of every single Marine is a tragedy and we take it personally, of course. However, we have a mission and that mission has not varied. These same Marines from this same unit continued the mission and today were in contact and were doing well and accomplishing what they were setting out to do.

REEVES: The assault now under way, Operation Quick Strike as the US military calls it, is centered on the Sunni Arab towns of Hadithah, Hacklinea(ph) and Bahwanna(ph). The great majority of the 1,000 or so forces taking part are US Marines, though the US military says several hundred Iraqi troops also have a role. Colonel Chase says they've killed at least 15 insurgents and detained at least 20 more in the last few days. They've been conducting house-to-house searches and air strikes from Marine fighter jets against buildings used by insurgents as firing positions. General Donald Alston says the insurgents will eventually lose, though he acknowledges swift victory is unlikely.

Gen. ALSTON: We recognize that this is not an insurgency that is measurable, we think, in weeks or even in a few months.

Prime Minister IBRAHIM AL-JAFARI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: That's Ibrahim Al-Jafari, the Iraqi prime minister. Like most here, he no longer uses euphemisms for this conflict and now openly acknowledges it's a war.

Prime Min. AL-JAFARI: (Through Translator) You know very well the nature of the war we are facing, and we are still at war.

REEVES: Arabic-language television stations interrupted programming yesterday with news of his latest initiative, a 12-point security plan. It was vaguely worded and was an attempt to reassure the many Iraqis who are fearful the country's sliding toward civil war. He outlined plans for streamlining the intelligence services and tighter border controls.

Jafari's crackdown comes at a critical moment in the political timetable. Only 10 days remain before a draft constitution has to be handed into Parliament, paving the way for a public referendum and elections in December. Crucial disagreements remain over its contents, and today Jafari went to the city of Najaf to seek support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the cleric who wields more power among Iraq's Shiite majority than any other. But the prime minister's task is not made any easier by a hidden and adaptable enemy.

Prime Min. AL-JAFARI: (Through Translator) It is not a formal war, a border war or a mountain war. It is one of the most dangerous wars because the enemy tries to infiltrate government offices, holy places, schools and hospitals hoping to defeat us.

REEVES: That enemy may even have infiltrated the heart of the Iraqi government. Yesterday fire broke out in its headquarters in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. This is the second time in as many months the building's been set ablaze. Iraqi sources tell NPR they believe it's arson. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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