Days of Violence
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RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome. Another bloody day in and around Baghdad. What have you learned about the identity of the victims and how the attacks were carried out?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, we learned that the victims in today’s bombing in Baghdad this morning were five foreign contractors. I think the breakdown is one American, two British, a French, and a Filipino. And they all were connected to General Electric, working on projects related to the power industry here.
What happened this morning was I was in our bureau, which is about a mile away, and I heard this enormous explosion about 8 a.m. The traffic is really bad in Baghdad, so I took a translator with me and we went by foot — sort of jogging through the streets to get to the scene of this attack. And when we arrived we saw three cars that had been really badly damaged.
Some were flipped on their sides, some were completely burned, windshields smashed, the whole bit. We had been told by a bunch of witnesses there that as these contractors were driving through town in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, another truck came up driving the wrong way through traffic and rammed into them and caused this enormous explosion.
But what was striking to me was sort of the scene afterwards that really gave the impression that this country is sort of slipping towards chaos. There’s a number of Iraqi police there and a few American soldiers, but they didn’t really do much after the bomb had gone off. And this huge crowd formed with this mob running towards the burned-out vehicles, and a bunch of guys jumped on top of one car and they started smashing it with poles.
Some other people were kicking in the windshields. And then somebody came up with a quantity of kerosene and doused it on one of these cars and lit it on fire and there was this huge fireball in the middle of, like, a busy neighborhood in Baghdad during rush hour with policemen standing by and American soldiers there, and nobody was really taking control of the situation.
RAY SUAREZ: In some of your most recent articles, you’ve written of what you call a “growing tolerance for disorder.” What did you mean by that? Is there a feeling that there is no ability on the part of these security forces to control these events?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I think preventing suicide attacks has always been really difficult. I mean, the thinking is if somebody is willing to give their life to pull off an attack, it’s pretty hard to prevent them anywhere. So it’s not so much preventing the attacks that seems to be different. What seems to be different is sort of the tolerance or the acceptance of these unruly scenes unfolding afterward.
What really struck me today was the fact that none of the security forces were doing anything, and there was a lot of journalists there and a lot of TV cameramen there. And they’re filming these scenes that sort of reinforce the idea or the image of Iraq as completely out of control, which is a destructive and discouraging image to be putting out to the Iraqi people right now.
But we’re at this sort of sensitive time because right now, the American officials have said that there’s going to be a lot of attacks, that this transition that’s going to happen on June 30, where they hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people, that’s going to be a moment of sort of greatest danger where everybody is going to be tested. But at the same time, while they’re sort of bracing for an increase in attacks, they’re trying to give Iraqi security forces, who haven’t been well tested or well trained, more authority. So we’re sort of in between, you know, handing off the occupation and the Iraqis taking over, and it seems like the issue of control just isn’t that clear.
RAY SUAREZ: The targets of these attacks appear to be foreigners in many of the cases, yet during these attacks many Iraqi die, and then the anger is directed at the U.S. rather than the people doing that. Am I reading this right?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yeah, you’re reading it exactly right, and this has been going on since I’ve been here, since I got here in January where these terrorists or these insurgents attack foreign targets and usually they bring down many more Iraqis with them. The problem is that nobody can really prevent what’s going on, and trying to communicate this to the people, they’re frustrated.
They see attack after attack, fireball after fireball, crater after crater, and they say “well, why can’t you do something to stop this?” They’re very angry at the foreigners, and they say this will continue until the foreigners leave Iraq. The problem is, even after the hand-over on June 30, there’s going to be 140,000 troops here and there’s going to be a number of contractors just like the guys who got killed today that are going to be here trying to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. So it’s not quite clear how the June 30 hand-over is really going to solve anything.
RAY SUAREZ: Today’s attacks follow a weekend in which members of the new Iraqi government were assassinated. Tell us more about that.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, that’s part of the same campaign. We’ve been told that there’s going to be more targeted assassinations, more bombings. We had a deputy foreign minister who was killed a couple days ago, and then yesterday, I think, an official with the ministry of education was shot down in the streets.
And this has been going on… I did a story back in February about assassinations, and the numbers are overwhelming. I mean, people think there have been, you know, 500 to 1,000 professionals assassinated — very deliberate, targeted killings; not something like this bombing, but actually looking for somebody, following them for a while, and then figuring out a time to strike. And it’s frightening to people in the governing council– or it was on the old governing council– and in the new government because even though they’re intensely protected by American soldiers and security forces, they’re still well known people and quite vulnerable once they leave their offices or homes.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this have the effect of confining them to their homes or government buildings, making them much less a presence in the capital or the country at large?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I think everybody’s really careful about sort of staying off the streets. I mean, both me as a foreign journalist and the people in the government and the American advisors, everybody’s sort of very cautious about where they go, when they go, how they go.
I was following Ambassador Bremer the other day. He’s the top administrator in Iraq. And he had this intense security entourage just within the green zone, which is a heavily fortified area within Baghdad where the American administration is run out of. And he had, you know, dozens of security guards with him going from point “a” to “b”, and a helicopter flying around with a guy leaning out the window pointing a gun down at the ground just within the green zone. So I think it’s a real fear, and people are just hoping that no big terrorist attack happens before June 30 that would discourage this transition or this transfer of power from happening.
RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, thanks for being with us.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thanks a lot, Ray. Appreciate it.