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JIM LEHRER: The attacks in Basra. We start with a report from Julian Manyon of Independent Television news in Baghdad.
JULAN MANYON: Outside a Basra police station, the wreckage in which 17 Iraqi children died. They were kindergarten pupils and girls from a local school. And it was their misfortune to be passing by in buses when terrorists carried out one of five deadly attacks in and around the British-controlled southern city.
Three of the targets were police stations; one of them a building which Prime Minister Tony Blair visited earlier this year. They were hit simultaneously soon after 7 in the morning local time. The result was carnage, with violent explosions wrecking buildings, setting cars on fire and causing widespread panic. The Iraqi police said at first that these were missile attacks, but the British army says that the terrorists used car bombs, probably detonated by suicide drivers.
Just outside Basra, a British camp where Iraqi police are trained was the target of two more blasts. Four British soldiers are said to have been hurt, one of them seriously.
JIM LEHRER: And Ray Suarez spoke to New York Times reporter Edward Wong in Iraq a short time ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Edward Wong, welcome. Is there any evidence or have there been any claims of responsibility, anything so far to point to who could have done this attack in Basra?
EDWARD WONG: No group has claimed responsibility yet for the attack. There have been many attacks in Iraq where no group has stepped forward to say they’ve done it. I understand that, and we’re hearing reports that two bombers or potential bombers were captured, that these were two men who intended to set off bombs. But we have no reports yet of the origins of these men or whether they’re affiliated with any organization.
RAY SUAREZ: Almost immediately after the attack, the mayor of Basra pointed to al-Qaida. And there was talk that these were clearly people who were not southern Shias. Is there any physical evidence remaining from the bombings to point to that provenance?
EDWARD WONG: No officials have come forward with any physical evidence or any evidence linking these attacks directly yet to al-Qaida. Often in these suicide bomb attacks, people will say that they bear the “fingerprints of al-Qaida.” But what that generally mean is that they resemble previous operations done by groups such as al-Qaida. But right now, there’s a lack of evidence of anything directly tying them to al-Qaida. And generally the use of “al-Qaida” is a very political term.
RAY SUAREZ: For most of the time since the fall of Baghdad, Basra has been portrayed as a pacified city. Does this represent a change? Is there rumbling in Basra that this is no longer going to be the peaceful place it’s been?
EDWARD WONG: Basra is generally more friendly towards the occupation than other cities, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always been a very peaceful place. In fact, there’s been attacks of various natures in Basra, sometimes on the occupation forces, sometimes on police forces, and sometimes just on civilians done by various parties. This is the largest suicide bomb attack that has taken place in Basra by far. And I think it does present new problems for the occupation. This is a new front that they’ll have to focus on, that they’ll have to put their efforts into … into trying to locate or root out whoever caused these attacks.
RAY SUAREZ: Does it mean the British will have to deploy in a different way to keep that city under control?
EDWARD WONG: The British have generally approached the occupation of Basra in a different way than the Americans have in other cities. They’ve used different tactics and they’ve tried to be generally more lenient towards a lot of the goings on in Basra, from what I understand. They feel that a friendlier, more open approach to the people there will engender more loyalty. I’m not sure that that this proves that that’s a wrong approach or a bad approach. I think that they will probably be reviewing security measures around Basra in the days to come, though.
RAY SUAREZ: In many of the attacks over the last several months where there has been large civilian loss of life, civilians on the streets of Iraqi cities have turned their anger not necessarily on the bombers or those presumed to be the attackers, but on the occupation forces. Was this the case in Basra today?
EDWARD WONG: That’s right. This was the case in Basra today. British soldiers who rushed to the scene were jeered by people there. They were harassed and stones were thrown at them. This isn’t anything new here in Iraq. I’ve been to many bomb sites where anger quickly turns towards the Americans, towards the Iraqi police forces, towards anyone seen working with the occupying forces. And a lot of this is because many Iraqis feel that the overall responsibility for security and for their well- being lies with the governing power, and right now that is the American administration.
RAY SUAREZ: Edward, let’s turn to the stand-off in Fallujah. It sounds like the on again/off again cease-fire is off again.
EDWARD WONG: Right. Well, if you talk to the Marines out there, if you spend any time with the Marines here, they’ll say that the cease-fire was never really a true cease-fire to begin with because they’ve gone out into the streets and the town and they’ve drawn fire from insurgents. Then they’ve had to fire back on insurgents. So there have been various skirmishes going on during this entire time when negotiations have taken place. There’s been a day or two where the town has been relatively quiet, but marines who are in the patrol say that they regularly get attacked or that they have to fire back at insurgents for whatever reason.
RAY SUAREZ: In this latest confrontation between insurgents and American forces, six civilians are reported dead. Does that highlight the difficulty of running operations around a city of 200,000 people?
EDWARD WONG: It does. There has been a lot of criticism from many Iraqis I’ve spoken to of the American forces for their strategy or their tactics in trying to root out the insurgents in the city. Lots of civilians have tried to flee the city. Some have succeeded. And some are trying to return now. But there is a lot of tension right now going on there, and many people are uncertain what might happen if the Americans have to step up their military campaign in the city again.
RAY SUAREZ: Edward Wong in Baghdad, thanks for being with us.
RICHARD WONG: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.