MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, CENTRAL IRAQAt his command post in central Iraq, Gen. Conway gave a wide-ranging interview to a small group of reporters, including U.S. News's Mark Mazzetti. As commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Conway leads the 85,000 U.S. marines and British forces now in Iraq. Conway had just watched televised footage of jubilant Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad's Saddam City area, and had spoken to his field commander, Maj. Gen. James Mattis of the 1st Marine Division, about moving in to secure the sprawling Shia neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. The marines had originally bypassed Saddam City, because intelligence reported that the regime had placed large numbers of militia forces there.
Q: Given the ease with which U.S. forces are moving through Baghdad, what is your assessment of the strength of Saddam Hussein's regime?
A: I think there is still a regime there. Whether or not the regime still has its head remains to be seen. I think it will die hard. What we think has happened is that the enemy didn't capitulate. What we've seen is that they've just melted away.
Q: Are you surprised about how quickly Baghdad has collapsed?
A: I don't think that Baghdad has by any means fallen. I'm encouraged by recent developments, certainly, but I still think we're some days, I hope not weeks, away from Baghdad being secure.
Our intent was to constrict the city using various key objectives as lily pads to reduce the regime on the east side. What we're seeing on TV is happening in some Shia neighborhoods. We can't make the mistake to say that's happening all over Baghdad. We still have a military imperative to conduct operations to reduce those regime-related facilities. If that's enhanced by what's happening in Shia neighborhoods, that's a good thing.
Q: What is the plan to deal with large-scale revenge killings and lawlessness in the wake of the fall of Saddam's regime?
A: We cannot tolerate the bloodletting and the revenge efforts that we've been cautioned could occur. It's simply not in our moral fiber to stand by and watch that kind of thing happen. If we see it, we'll stop it. In terms of looting and that kind of thing, we would have to stop it. But I think I understand it, if you look at how these people have been deprived over the years. This is a potentially very rich country and you can argue that this national wealth has been looted by this whole regime for over a couple of decades now. Does it bother me now that I see these people taking an office chair or the guts of a refrigerator or an air conditioner? Not really, not at least at this point. Because in some regards, it's got to be the pent-up frustration they've experienced for the better part of their lives.
Q: At this point, does it even matter if the U.S. can prove that Saddam has been killed?
A: It's terribly important to the Iraqi people... I think if you looked at two opposing scenarios, one, it can be proven that he's dead and he will never return again; that's a much more palatable entry into phase 4 [post-hostilities] than would be [the scenario that] Saddam has disappeared and we're not sure where he is, he may have been vaporized, he may be somewhere in Syria or in the basement of a building in Tikrit.
Q: What was one of the most critical points of the campaign for Marine units?
A: We knew that our logistics lines of supply, lines of communication were going to be extremely elongated by the time we got to Baghdad, and they all went through Nasiriyah. And that was always the importance of An Nasiriyah. If you could pick the two vital points in the whole of our [Marine Expeditionary Force] sector, it's that Highway 1 bridge and those bridges in eastern Nasiriyah that lead up Highway 7.
We had no choice but to take that ground and defend it. It was just an old-fashioned fight. They wanted to defend the bridges. We had to have the bridges. And Task Force Tarawa did a magnificent job at some cost of taking that vital ground and then holding it for us."
Q: What's surprised you along the way about the Iraqi forces U.S. troops encountered?
A: I don't think we fully gave them enough credit for being as willing to sacrifice as they were. We knew that Baath Party members [and] Fedayeen could try to interdict our way. But they proved to be more tenacious than we thought they'd be because they were lightly armed. That said, once we ascertained their tactics and techniques, we adapted very quickly and a lot of them are not around today because we simply turned their tactics and techniques back on them.
Q: How specifically did you change tactics?
A: They were anxious to fight. They principally used light weapons, mortars, RPGs, machine guns, and, of course, AKs. We baited them. We rolled into range, let them throw some RPGs at us, exchange fire, then close with them. A lot of times they would come out with an actual attack or assault against our .50-caliber or our 25-millimeter. They would be willing to duel their technical vehicles against our APCs (armored personnel carriers) or our hardback hummers (humvees), and that's not a fair fight."
Q: At the beginning of the war, several U.S officials mentioned negotiations the U.S. was having with commanders of the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard. What happened to those negotiations?
A: They didn't bear fruit. I don't think the snowball got rolling properly. We treated some units pretty rough early on, but those commanders, for whatever combination of reasons, did not come across, did not put their vehicles in square, did not hoist the white flag. So we were not able to capitalize on the early effort to show others that this is the true feeling coming to the surface. Some of the things we were told could happen did not happen.
Q: Might Marine forces be asked to continue north toward Tikrit to take care of what's left of Saddam's regime?
A: That would be tough for us. We are a long way for our sea base. As marines, we don't smell saltwater up here around Baghdad, OK, so that makes us a little uneasy. That said, our logisticians, well augmented by our [air] wing, have done a magnificent job. I think they've just conducted miracles every day. To take that another couple hundred miles would be extremely difficult. It's difficult right nowthat would be extremely difficult. But it might be something we have to ask our people to do.