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Report From Baghdad

February 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For more on today’s suicide bombing and the general security environment in Iraq, we’re joined by Jeffrey Gettleman, Baghdad correspondent for The New York Times. Jeffrey, today we saw 50 more people killed in a suicide car bomb outside of Baghdad. Could you tell us what happened today?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: This morning, there was a massive suicide bomb attack at a police station in a town called Iskandariyah, which is a little south of Baghdad. Details are still coming in, but what appears to have been the case was a pick-up truck packed with about 500 pounds of explosives detonated right in front of this police station. However, there aren’t that many police officers killed. Instead, there was a lot of people outside that were waiting to get jobs as police officers who were killed in the blast.

GWEN IFILL: There has been much conversation about whether some of these suicide blasts we’ve been talking about and that you’ve been covering have been part of a collaboration or an organized effort to go after people who are collaborating with the United States in the postwar environment there. Was there any evidence that that was the case today?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Definitely. The military thinks that this suicide attack is related and consistent with several other recent attacks that have been credited to al-Qaida associates. And there’s sort of this broad campaign to target police officers, government officials and other people who are coordinating and collaborating with the American occupation.

GWEN IFILL: When they talk about al-Qaida associates, one name keeps coming up and that’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Is he being linked with this, as well?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, two days ago, the military released a letter from Zarqawi to senior al-Qaida associates, and they think that Zarqawi was basically asking for help. He was saying that things were very difficult in Iraq, that the Americans weren’t leaving as early as other people had anticipated, and that there was no traction, so far, and really sort of fomenting a widespread revolution against the American occupation.

In this letter, Zarqawi took credit for a number of the suicide attacks. He said that they had planned over 25. And from what the military can tell right now, this latest attack is consistent with some of the other ones that Zarqawi took credit for.

GWEN IFILL: It should be noted that Zarqawi is actually Jordanian, so there’s been much conversation about whether he is one of those foreign forces the United States has been suggesting has been behind this. In general, have these attacks, or attacks against coalition forces specifically, been on the increase or the decrease?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, it’s hard to tell. It seems like there’s fewer attacks but they’re more serious. I mean, today we had 50 people killed in one attack, which was the third largest ever. And then last week, there were over 100 people killed in an attack in Kurdistan. So, it seems like the attacks are getting a little more sophisticated and a little more deadly.

GWEN IFILL: You have also written about the tactics which are not about big suicide bomb attacks with mass casualties but almost kind of a one-by-one campaign of assassination of white collar middle class Iraqis.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah. There’s something very insidious going on. There’s been this broad campaign to sort of pluck out one by one key officials and professionals in high-profile positions and sort of mid-level positions. Iraqi police think that over, you know, 500 people have been assassinated since May. And a lot of these people aren’t necessarily police colonels or police officers who are obviously collaborating with the government, but are people in more a professional position that are sort of making the society here function. And the worry is, is that if you intimidate this level, you know, these types of people sort of the intelligencia, there’s going to be no one around to run the institutions at this fragile point in the transition.

GWEN IFILL: If there is this kind of intimidation going on, you also wrote in today’s New York Times about the effort by the U.S. military to lower its profile in a lot of Baghdad neighborhoods. Is there any concern from the folks who live there that maybe that’s happening a little too soon?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Definitely. I mean, right now, the military is trying to recalibrate their strategy. They’re striving for a much lower profile and to be less conspicuous. The thing is, a lot of people here don’t feel safe, so they ask, you know, “If we don’t feel safe now and there’s troops patrolling the streets, how are we going to feel, you know, when there’s a less visible presence?”

GWEN IFILL: So, what exactly is the United States doing as far as your reporting has shown in terms of lowering its profile?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, they’re doing a number of things. In this transition, they’re replenishing the troops that are here with fresh troops from the United States. So they’re using that as an opportunity to sort of change their tactics. Right now in Baghdad, the 1st Armored Division is leaving and the 1st Calvary Division is coming in. And instead of taking all the bases that the first armored division has been using, the First Cavalry Division — the new division — is going to base itself outside the city. They’re sort of pulling back to the outskirts of the city.

They’re also going to use smaller vehicles. They’re not going to be using tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers. They’re going to be using humvees. And in that way, they can sort of travel less conspicuously and also they can use different streets that won’t be damaged by a light vehicle whereas these tanks have very sort of limited movement.

GWEN IFILL: Is this all part of a buildup toward eventual withdrawal at the end of June?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah. Well, they keep talking about how they want to sort of have the primary policing and security be provided by Iraqi security forces and keep the American forces in a position where they can respond to anything big, but they won’t be the sort of go-to forces for day-to-day security matters.

However, there’s still a shortage of Iraqi policemen. There’s really not a standing Iraqi army yet. They’re trying to put together an intelligence agency. I mean, it’s all sort of a work in progress. So, some people here are concerned that the Americans are so eager to withdraw and to sort of lower their profile that maybe there’s going to be another vacuum and there could be more looting and other security problems before the Iraqi forces are in place.

GWEN IFILL: Big question mark still: What role will the United Nations play in all of this? How much are local Iraqis looking to the U.N. to tell them what the next steps will be and how much will that affect the United States’ intention to withdraw?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: A lot of people are talking about that. I mean, the number one issue right now is whether or not there will be elections or this caucus-style way of selecting delegates to the transitional national assembly. Right now, the U.N. is here but they’re really not saying much.

They’re meeting with a number of local officials, but they’re keeping their cards really close to their vest. So we don’t really know what’s going on. But the thought is, is that they’re going to sort of look at the matter as broadly as possible and maybe even revisit this issue of whether June 30 is the right time to hand over the government to the Iraqis.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you very much for joining us.