Escalating Attacks in Iraq
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TERENCE SMITH: Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome. Today’s attacks seem to have been not only widespread but nearly simultaneous. What does that tell you?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, today for the first time we saw a widespread offensive across a number of cities. In the past, there had been some coordinated attacks, namely what happened in February during the Ashoura Holiday where there were a number of people killed in Baghdad and Karbala But today there violence in five cities, Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baquba and Mosul.
Today’s attacks showed a level of coordination that really hadn’t been here that we witnessed until today. What happened was there was a number of attacks that sort of represented the classic insurgency attack of masked men running into the streets trying to take over police stations and attack Iraqi security forces.
At the same time there was a number of suicide bombings that actually ended up making the most deadly component of today’s violence that killed, you know, upwards of 60 people.
TERENCE SMITH: Does it seem that the Iraqi security forces were the target?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: In most cases, yeah, it was the Iraqi security forces who were targeted. However, there were a number of American forces that were targeted, including two army soldiers who were killed in Baquba.
And today I went to a bombing in Baghdad where a man walked up with a bomb in his briefcase. He was dressed as policeman which was sort of a sign that this campaign is getting more sinister, and he presented this briefcase to a mix of Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops that were at this checkpoint and then he blew himself up, so it looks like they are sort of targeting the Iraqi security forces and the Americans with as, we’ve seep in the past year in Iraq, the Iraqi forces taking the brunt of the casualties.
TERENCE SMITH: And are the authorities there linking this to the turnover of sovereignty to Iraq next week?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, definitely. They have been bracing all of us here for an up tick in violence and a surge of violence leading up to the June 30 transfer of authority. Every day they say we’re going to see more attacks. They are going to test us. It’s going to get more and more violent.
What’s interesting about what happened today is it seems as though the attacks were coordinated and possibly led by this suspected terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who is a Jordanian-born terrorist who went to Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s, fought alongside Osama bin Laden and then kind of drifted around the Middle East for a bit and resurfaced in Iraq, maybe a couple years ago, maybe this year.
They are not quite sure, and now he’s supposed to be the mastermind behind all these attacks.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, if he’s the prime and driving force behind them, what does that suggest about the size and reach and capacity of his organization?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: These types of groups are incredibly hard to pin down and to get a lot of information on.
I mean, I’ve been here for about six months, and people have been blaming the attacks on this guy Zarqawi since I got here, even though whenever we as reporters ask for evidence, why do you think this attack or that attack was linked to Zarqawi, the authorities are often reluctant to give us any sort of hard proof.
He has made a name for himself planning massive and spectacular suicide attacks, and there’s a letter found in February that he supposedly wrote to Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the al-Qaida organization in which he claimed responsibility for a number of suicide attacks in Iraq so ever since that letter was published most out of the authorities have blamed the suicide attacks on him.
However, today, we started to see insurgents in the streets with their Kalashnikovs and their masks saying they were fighting for this man, Zarqawi, which was an unusual twist because before he’s been associated with the terrorist side of the insurgency and not so much the popular uprising side.
TERENCE SMITH: And do there appear to be Saddam loyalists involved as well?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, that’s what we hear and that’s what we’ve been hearing for quite some time. Most of the violence today was in the so-called Sunni Triangle which sort of extends from Baghdad, west to Ramadi and up towards Mosul.
It may or may not include Baquba, depending on who you talk to, and this area has a lot of former Saddam loyalists, people that fought in his army, people who benefited from his patronage met works, people who were close to him and had a lot to lose when Saddam was overthrown.
So when there is violence in the Sunni Triangle, it’s often sort of passed off as instigated or encouraged by former Saddam loyalists, but the whole insurgency remains pretty shadowy so it’s not quite clear if it’s more of a popular uprising, more of a terrorist uprising, or some combination of the two.
TERENCE SMITH: And what’s the evidence of the goal here? Is it to destabilize the new Iraqi government that’s supposed to take over?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: The American military keeps accenting the fact that these terrorists don’t provide any type of political agenda.
They don’t provide any alternative to the current state of affairs in Iraq, so the thought is they are creating this disorder. They are trying to strike fear in the population to sort of bring Iraq to its knees, create an atmosphere of chaos in which maybe an Islamic state could be formed or at least the United States army would be driven out or some type of message would be sent, but what’s not clear is there’s really no political message that has been shared about what the alternatives should be to the American formed government that’s supposed to take over June 30.
TERENCE SMITH: And finally, very briefly, what was the reaction of the Iraqi public and even the Iraqi officials today?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: The Iraqi officials take a very brave public stand. They say we were expecting this. It’s going to get worse. We’ll be able to withstand it, and we’re going to crack down on these terrorists.
But I think the public is pretty discouraged to see this sort of stream of suicide attacks go on unabated and increase in nature and in size as the days pass.
And also there’s really no sort of answer to stopping these attacks because the belief is that somebody is willing to give their life, there’s really no preventing them from pulling off a suicide attack so I think the public is quite anxious.
I’ve even interviewed a few people who said they were contemplating leaving Baghdad close to the June 30 date, or staying in their homes and off the streets because they have no idea what type of mayhem or chaos that may erupt on the 30th or shortly afterward.
TERENCE SMITH: Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, thank you very much.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.