NR: “Moving chess pieces across the board”

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Length: 5:00

TONY HARRIS: The bottom line now on the front lines. By the numbers, here's a breakdown of the American military in Iraq. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has climbed back to about 138,000. U.S. marines make up about 22,000 of that number.

HEIDI COLLINS: On duty and always under the gun, U.S. soldiers in the heart of an al-Qaeda stronghold. A small force, but a large area. One, in fact, roughly the size of New Hampshire.

CNN's Michael Ware spent time embedded with those troops in the town of Ramadi. He's joining us now from Baghdad.

And in keeping with our theme, if you will, today, Michael, we're talking about being on the front line today. You have called Ramadi the al-Qaeda front lines.

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Heidi. I mean, I've been going to Ramadi for three years now. And I've watched it devolve, much like the war in Iraq itself, as al-Qaeda's jihad has infected the local Iraqi insurgent fight. And we see it no more better than in Ramadi.

U.S. military intelligence and American commanders there on the ground are very upfront. They say, this is the al-Qaeda front line, al-Qaeda owns the insurgency there. And it's from Ramadi and its surrounding areas that it directs much of the rest of its battle across the country. In fact, there's an area just north of Ramadi, across the Euphrates River, known as Jazeera. This is the area the size of New Hampshire, which is only sprinkled with a few hundred American troops. But it is the al-Qaeda in Iraq headquarters. It's the command and control center.

In fact, President Bush in his -- one of his most recent addresses referred specifically to Ramadi and al-Qaeda's grand plan to use it as a toehold to build its global caliphate. Yet America is not sending enough troops there. The troops there, all they're really being asked to do is hold the line. As a result, they're being put in the meat grinder. As many as 100 U.S. soldiers and marines are dying there every year. That's not to mention casualties.

By and large, this al-Qaeda headquarters remains undisturbed, simply because U.S. military does not have the troops to send them there. It's a gaping black hole in the president's war on terror -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Well, as far as logistics and tactical plans for moving troops there -- if that, in fact, is the military strategy -- I mean, lots of times it's a lot more complicated than that. How hard would it be to bump up the U.S. force in this area?

WARE: Well, it's a matter of moving chess pieces across the board, Heidi. I mean, given the fact that there is 138,000 U.S. troops here, I mean, you have to make decisions. I mean, in Ramadi, they describe their operations there, the American commanders, as an economy of force. Now, militarily, what that means is that you don't have enough troops to do the job you ultimately want to do. So you have to make decisions. You have to take risks. You have to make sacrifices, and take the pressure off here to put the pressure on there. So it is across all of Iraq.

As top American commanders will privately concede, to be honest, there is not enough troops here in Iraq. Whether you're for or against the war from the beginning or not, whether you're for or against the occupation of Iraq, the bottom line is for the mission that the president has set, there are not enough American boots here on the ground. This feeds al-Qaeda; makes them stronger, not weaker. And we're seeing clear evidence of that. Not to mention the fact that it emboldens America's [
he means Iraq's] other stated ally, which is Iran, whose influence here not only competes with Americans, but often supersedes it -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Michael, I know you had an opportunity to spend some time with the troops. You were embedded with them. What is life like there for these troops in the combat outposts?

WARE: Look, I've been going out there for a long time on, honestly, both sides of the fence, with Iraqis and with American troops. The Americans now are in a new state of the battle. It used to be a point where there was only a number of American outposts sprinkled throughout the city. I was there in November last year when al-Qaeda hit all five American posts at once.

Now, that type of battle has changed. There's a lot more posts, but they're smaller, dashed all over the city. But these are very basic places. The boys -- and, quite frankly, that's often what they are; it's filled with teenagers -- have to fight for themselves every day. They are in contact every single day, from car bombs, IEDs, rocket attacks, mortars, everything. This is about as remote and as front line as it gets -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Michael Ware coming to us from Ramadi [
she means Baghdad] today. Michael, thank you.