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Deadly Day in Iraq

March 31, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s attack and the state of security in Iraq we turn to Robert Orr, a former National Security Council staffer in the Clinton administration. He was part of a Pentagon assessment team in Iraq last summer and is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he’s written widely on military affairs and he recently completed a report on the state of post war Iraq. And to Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, he traveled with the Marines to Baghdad during the war for a book and was in Iraq again last month. Welcome to you all, gentlemen.

Bob Orr, beginning with you what do today’s attacks both in numbers killed and the rather horrific reaction we saw from so many Iraqis in Fallujah, what does that tell you about the state of security in Iraq?

ROBERT ORR: Though every death matters and every person lost is a tragedy, we need to keep in mind that this number of deaths is not out of the realm of what we’ve been seeing in recent weeks and months.

The real key is whether people overreact to the gruesome scene here in America or there in Iraq. There’s a political process going on in Iraq and that’s as important as security developments — if these security developments affect either the political process there or here, then we can see a much bigger impact.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your assessment what we saw today?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think Mr. Orr made a very important point. We saw some horrifying images. There are now, if you count killed and wounded, close to 4,000 coalition personnel. There have been roughly two deaths a day of people in uniform. And these images are simply deliberate efforts psychologically to manipulate opinion.

We also need to remember because we may focus on the fact these are Americans that equally if not more violent actions have been conducted during Shiite religious ceremonies where hundreds of innocent people have been killed in bombings. The Kurds in the North were the target of these groups. We are dealing approximately with 150 and 180 incidents a week, attacks a week. The casualties relative to the number of attacks still are relatively low.

We’re not losing in that sense. And Fallujah is an isolated area. Public opinion surveys in Iraq conducted in the last several weeks show the vast majority of Iraqis oppose this kind of attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Bing West, this is the second deadliest month in terms of the number of Americans killed since the president declared the end of major combat operations and the engagements also, as they are described, seem to be going up. Why is this happening now?

BING WEST: I don’t think that we can attribute it to any particular cause. One thing that happens in combat is that when you get good weather people are out more. It’s as simple as you go on patrol and there are more opportunities of getting into combat. But what Tony just said I think is also very pertinent.

This terrible incident that we’ve seen now was due to Fallujah being the toughest city, but it isn’t just against the Americans. It’s these insurgents in Fallujah have been just as tough against the Iraqis trying to bring out the new Iraq. So overall I think it’s too early to say that we’re seeing a different trend than we have for the last few months. We’re simply seeing a set of insurgents who are determined to prevent a new Iraq from emerging.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Orr, we’re less than 100 days though from the handover of at least political authority and the hope is in the U.S. military increasing military authority. What are these attacks say about the prospects for that?

ROBERT ORR: The handover date was an arbitrary date that was set. We are now marching toward it. Iraqis have insisted on that date. As you mentioned, with 100 days to go, the security situation is not one that will allow us to hand over in a way that we would like to, which is to a coherent government that can control all its territory.

We definitely cannot see a situation in which we let attacks like this create a political environment where the consensus that is building in Iraq falls apart. So we need to show some resolve on this but more importantly the somewhat on again off again political process needs to get a new jumpstart.

MARGARET WARNER: But we heard, staying with you Bob Orr, John Burns describe that there has been a shift, say, in the U.S. military strategy toward Fallujah which was for a while there U.S. forces really were not active in the town and sort of said, well, we’ll let the Iraqis take care of it. Then, the Marines who have gone in there are now putting pressure on. How much of a factor is that?

ROBERT ORR: We need to synchronize the military strategy and the political strategy. As the marines have taken a more aggressive posture, it’s not a surprise that there are more casualties. What I think the message that is received in that area is that if we stay the course on making sure that the U.S. presence is known, then they may take some lessons.

The political reality is different in all parts of Iraq. But these types of attacks will get people focused on whether or not the United States is going to see them through. If they think the U.S. is going to cut and run after these kinds of attacks, no political process will succeed. It will all fall apart.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, we’ll take it as a given all three of you don’t think the U.S. should cut and run, but I’m still trying to get to the bottom of why these attacks have stepped up. What do you think it is, Mr. Cordesman?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: First, the attacks have really averaged about 150 a week fairly consistently. We are headed toward a transfer of power. That is one reason to try to deal with this.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean including the greater pressure, say, what the Marines are doing in Fallujah?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: No, I think that is largely irrelevant to this. What really counts is everyone in Iraq knows that on the 30th of June a new government is coming. The U.S. is going to be rotating immense numbers of civilians. It’s already in the middle of a military rotation.

That rotation is one possible reason for the attacks. The feeling there may be vulnerabilities as new people come in and experienced people go out. But this whole process of heading toward the 30th of June is almost certainly going to lead the insurgents to try to repeat these kinds of incidents, not only against us but against the Shiites, against the Kurds and the others.

The Madrid bombings showed that if you attack a political system with images, you can change the way a western government deals with the war. They also know the real calendar here is one which extends into 2006. They’ll have opportunity after opportunity to try to deal with these cases. On the other hand, they won’t have these kinds of troop rotations again and the Iraqi security forces, which today number about 200,000 but almost none of which are trained or equipped, by November, by later on, are also going to be much more effective.

MARGARET WARNER: Bing West, let’s talk about those Iraqi forces because last time you were on the program in November speaking with Jim Lehrer, you were fairly upbeat about the prospects of training these Iraqi security forces and then really being able to take over. I think you said something like it doesn’t take a year to train these people. In four to six months I think the situation will be very different. It’s now four months later. Were you more upbeat than perhaps the situation warranted?

BING WEST: Well, I don’t know. I’ll be back in Fallujah next week. I just received an e-mail from the chief of staff of the Marine division out there. He said that they are going ahead with the Iraqi forces systematically to take control of Fallujah because you can’t afford to allow that city to secede, but they’re going to be doing everything with the Iraqi forces. So I don’t think we can let some of the incidents along the way — gruesome as they are — get in the way of the longer-term focus that we have.

On 1 July we’re not turning security over. We are turning over the provisional government to Iraq but the security responsibility will still rest under the Central Command and under General Abizaid but I think you’re going to see all of our divisions working more and more with the Iraqi forces. I think that’s definitely the path we’re on.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with Mr. Cordesman that they are still, however — I think you said under trained and also under equipped?


ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well, the basic contracts to equip the Iraqi security forces for a variety of reasons have not even been issued yet. And a lot of them are without weapons, radios and vehicles. The army contract — has become very public — has had to be recalled. I think Bing is absolutely right.

If things had been on schedule we’d be in a different position but Ambassador Bremer said just yesterday at this point in time it’s going to be well over a year before the security forces have the training and equipment they need.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Orr, turning back to the situation of these contractors, one, how important are they? They are essential, are they not, to the rebuilding effort that you’re talking about? Is it possible for them to be made safer without compromising their essential mission?

ROBERT ORR: This is one of the central questions: The model that we’re using in this rebuilding effort is basically through contractors. That’s who most of the personnel out there trying to do the rebuilding are. I think the key is going to be with these kinds of security situations, can we get people into the communities?

In parts of the country, we’ve been successful in getting civilians working in the communities, protected by the communities. In Fallujah, that’s much more than we can hope for right now. But we can’t in the name of security pull all civilians out of the various communities in which they’re working. That would be a big mistake.

We need to recognize the different situation and the different parts of the country, deal with Fallujah and the so-called Sunni Triangle somewhat differently but make sure that we maximize the number of civilians going out there and helping to rebuild the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Cordesman, should we read anything into the fact that there were dog tags found at the scene or a DOD ID card in terms of who these contractors were?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well, some of the ID cards are simply issued to people because they are contractors. A lot of the people who are security are ex-military. About 10 to 15 percent of all the aid money in these contracts today goes to paying security people, most of whom are ex-military. So it’s a fact of life that not only are men and women in uniform dying but you’re having security people dying in significant numbers and most are ex-U.S. military.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. West, the U.S. military commanders have said that they thought increasingly these attacks were the work of foreign fighters and less and less indigenous Iraqis. We heard the bystander on the tape — I don’t know if you saw it but you could hear him — say that the Mujahadin did it. What did that term mean to you?

BING WEST: I’d be skeptical of that. I think in the case of Fallujah this certainly looks like the Saddam loyalists, the insurgents who were there, they could say things — there’s generally a tendency for the Iraqis to always blame outsiders.

But I think that the evidence indicates that about 90 percent of the attacks are done by Iraqi insurgents.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, Mr. Orr, you all said you don’t believe this should turn U.S. public opinion against this effort but you’re all students, I’m sure, of U.S. public opinion. What kind of impact do you think this will have?

ROBERT ORR: Obviously Americans will be horrified by the kind of tape that you showed. I think some other images. It concerned me that this afternoon many of the Web sites, news Web sites that had these kinds of images up started pulling them off. We need to be very realistic about what’s going on in Iraq. Men and women in uniform and many, many civilians are out there putting their lives on the line every day.

In a democracy, we need that kind of information. In a political season, it would be a big mistake if we allowed this to be politicized. We have put people in harm’s way, civilians as well as military. I think that the American people need to be informed about what’s happening.

MARGARET WARNER: Robert Orr, Bing West and Tony Cordesman, thank you all.