Will Coalition Troops Storm Iman Ali Shrine?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," August 23, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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HEATHER NAUERT, GUEST HOST: U.S. forces in Najaf are closing in on the Imam Ali shrine where fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) are holed up. American sharpshooters are surrounding the rooftops and tanks got within 250 yards, the closest that they've been in days. But American commanders say that the troops aren't conducting offensive operations, they're just returning fire. Joining me now is Fox News military analyst Retired Marine Colonel Bill Cowan (search), and that's today's big question, Colonel Cowan: Will coalition forces be forced to storm the mosque?

LT. COL. BILL COWAN (RET.), FOX MILITARY ANALYST: That's a great question, but, you know, at the rate things are going, it doesn't seem certain that anybody is going to storm the mosque. Here we are four, five days after we thought we would all wake up and have some resolution. We see that Prime Minister Allawi (search) has blinked, we now have the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and his people involved in negotiations. I hear now maybe somebody is suggesting United Nations become involved. It looks like we have inched closer and closer, but from a practical perspective, it doesn't really look like we are any closer to concluding this by the use of U.S. forces.

NAUERT: Perhaps because the negotiations haven't quite seemed to work and al-Sadr keeps coming up with these new so far demands and we're going to give you the keys to the shrine, over to Sistani or a respected Shiite imam.

We want to check out what's in the mosque and make sure we're handing everything over. That clearly doesn't seem to be going anywhere. The military forces moving in closer than ever. It seems as though we're reaching a fever pitch. Are forces going to have to go in and storm the mosque?

COWAN: The real decision for that will be made by Prime Minister Allawi and if you recall last week, he said he was giving them their final ultimatum and he could put a timetable out there that we're going to storm — we being the Iraqi and U.S. forces. We're going to end this quickly if Muqtada al-Sadr didn't do certain things, and, of course, as you just suggested, he didn't do them.

So my guess is this: What our military is doing is we're inching closer and closer, but right behind our frontlines right there with us is the Iraqi assault force and the closer we get to the mosque, the closer we get to the final target there without having to have our Iraqi counterparts there engaged, the better off we are. At some moment Prime Minister Allawi said let's go ahead and take it down. We, our forces, U.S. forces, are not going to make that final assault. It's going to be Iraqis and we continue to get them closer and closer. We're going to be there to provide them the supporting arms that they need.

NAUERT: Let me jump in there because you said that the Iraqis may not necessarily get engaged to the extent that we do. We have to put an Iraqi face on this.

COWAN: Oh, yes.

NAUERT: Already we, being the Americans, are being criticized for all of this. How do the Americans put more of an Iraqi face on this when the Iraqis aren't as well-prepared as our soldiers are?

COWAN: You're absolutely right. The troops that actually take that last 100 yards or 200 yards into the compound into the mosque have to be Iraqi troops and what we have continued to do is make this noose a little tighter, a little tighter.

NAUERT: Are they prepared to do so? Do they have the training?

COWAN: That's the one positive thing about it taking more time. We've been able to work much closer with these guys. You can be sure that those Iraqi forces have been given the exact routes of advance by platoons, by company. They know the communications. They know the U.S. military support that's going to be to help with them, whether it be sniper fire, tank fire, whatever, but we have really had a chance with the Iraqis to finalize and to perfect that last couple of hundred yards that they'll have to take and that's the one upside these delays.

NAUERT: How do we tactically do this together? Where do the Iraqis go? How are they outfit with weapons and where do the U.S. forces go with them?

COWAN: Well, first, I would say that you can be sure that the Iraqis that we're going to put into this thing have been carefully selected. We probably have gone out and found some of the best Iraqi leaders we could find. Most all of these guys are certainly not going to be people who have just joined an army, the army since the fall of Saddam's regime. These are probably all people who were in the army before who have significant military experience, who know how to be troop leaders, who know how to use their individual weapons.

NAUERT: These aren't necessarily the kind of guys we heard about during the Fallujah siege that melted away and never fought. These guys are more likely to be the tough fighters who will stick it out?

COWAN: I think these are guys that we've been very careful at picking and choosing so that the people we have in there, we know that they're committed to the battle, we know we're there to support them.

NAUERT: Are our forces going to be able to get al-Sadr to back down once and for all or are we going to be dealing with this months from now?

COWAN: What a great question. We would have all thought as of sometime last week, this would be over. Nobody knows where the guy is right now, but one thing we do know. We know that he has got a lot of general support behind him. We know that fighting broke out in seven cities up and down the Shiite sector. We know that he has to be effectively dealt with at some point, so it remains up to Prime Minister Allawi to determine what's going to happen. U.S. forces will be involved.

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