Scores Die in Northern Iraq Suicide Bombing
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RAY SUAREZ: The sights and sounds of ambulances racing toward plumes of smoke on the skyline have been ubiquitous around Iraq, especially this past week as insurgents stepped up their campaign of violence. Follow those sirens, and scenes of fiery destruction and devastation await. This attack on Monday was in a popular shopping district.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): While we were in our shops, a car bomb exploded, leaving a number of people dead, littering the ground.
RAY SUAREZ: Since last Thursday, when Iraq’s new government was partially named, some 200 people have died. The bombings began on the same day, in Tikrit and in Baghdad.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): It seems that the terrorists not only target officials, but they also target civilians, and this is a filthy and cowardly act.
RAY SUAREZ: The wave of violence continued on Friday as a string of 13 separate car bombs were detonated across Baghdad. By day’s end, some 50 people were dead and more than 100 were injured. The attacks extended to other cities, including Baqouba and Basra. And over the weekend, the violence was unrelenting. Several attacks targeted Iraqi policemen at Baghdad checkpoints.
MAN (Translated): We were attacked by masked gunmen. They opened fire on us and we returned fire. Then they encircled us and fired at us from behind and from all sides. Two of us who were in the street were killed after they were shot in the head. Two others were also shot dead. We were on the roof, and I was wounded in my leg while my colleague was shot dead and fell off the roof.
RAY SUAREZ: But today’s deadly bombing in Irbil is the first one of its magnitude in over a year in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, again targeting police recruits. Just yesterday, 30 members of Iraq’s new government were sworn in. But several key posts remain unfilled, including the all-important job of defense minister. For ordinary Iraqis, security is one of the top concerns.
MAN (Translated): We hoped that the Iraqi government would provide security and tackle the jobless and housing crisis.
RAY SUAREZ: For American soldiers in Iraq there’s also been a surge in casualties; 17 have died since last Thursday.
RAY SUAREZ: And for more on the latest violence and the political haggling we’re joined by Peter Galbraith, a former ambassador who has written widely on Iraq and the Kurds. He visited Kurdish Iraq late last month. And Erik Gustafson, executive director of the education for Peace in Iraq Center, an organization in Washington that promotes security and democracy in Iraq. He’s also a veteran of the first Gulf War.
Ambassador Galbraith, what’s the significance, both of the target and the site of this latest bombing, Irbil, and more police recruits?
PETER GALBRAITH: Well, this occurred in the Kurdish region of Iraq, which has been governed basically as an almost independent country since 1991. It has its own police and it has its own army. The Iraqi army doesn’t come there. There are no central government institutions there. As a result, it has been very secure, compared to the rest of the Iraq. There has been only one major attack that took place on Feb. 1, 2004. This is the second.
It will certainly affect how the public in Kurdistan see the relations with the rest of Iraq, as did the previous attack — will make them feel that a connection to Iraq is a dangerous thing — it ties them in with a chaotic place — and it will certainly enhance the government’s determination that only the Kurdistan government will be in charge of security in Kurdistan.
RAY SUAREZ: Erik Gustafson, do you agree, this is a message to the people: You’re not safe even up there?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: I think so. I mean, we’re talking about a heavily fortified area. Irbil is extremely militarized. You have a lot of checkpoints. So for an insurgent group, like as we believe to be Ansar al-Suna, to carry out an attack like this with this kind of sophistication, but also with the find of firepower. This wasn’t any ordinary ordinance; this was an extremely powerful bomb that was detonated.
RAY SUAREZ: This latest surge in violence has come about the same time as the announcement of the new government. Is there a connection?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: Well, I mean, one of the concerns of course is that it’s taken months for the formation of the new government. Obviously there’s a lot of power-sharing arrangements that have to be negotiated so we can expect this kind of horse trading to go on. But the real concern is that it slows the process to be able to stand up a new police, a new effective security force, and so it really, I think, has hindered efforts to make progress in that regard.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, what do you think? Did the slowness in forming a government provide a vacuum into which violent elements could work?
PETER GALBRAITH: Certainly not in Irbil, because Kurdistan has been managing its own affairs, it has its own security, and what happens in Baghdad is basically irrelevant. I think the reason attacks have been stepped up — it’s not just these attacks again the Kurds, but there have also been attacks by the insurgents, who are virtually all Sunni Arabs, against the Shiites.
And in some sense, what you have is the people who had previously run Iraq, who sat out elections because they knew they would lose, attacking the winners and hoping to provoke a civil war. That hasn’t happened yet because the Shiite leaders are requiring their followers to exercise restraint, and the Kurdish government is in control in its own territory. But it is certainly increasing ill will by both Shiites and Kurds against the Sunni Arabs, and it is feeding into an environment of growing sectarian violence in the communities that are mixed, like Mosul in the North, which is Sunni Arab and Kurdish, or some of the areas in the south that are Shiite and Sunni Arab.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, Erik Gustafson, some of the major portfolios haven’t been filled yet: Defense, oil. From your understanding, what’s the holdup?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: Well, the defense ministry has intended to go to a Sunni Arab, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. And there is concern that those are possible candidates had ties to the former regime, the Baathist regime. I think the real challenge though is for the Iraqi leaders to figure out ways to bring in elements who can be negotiated with, brought into the political process, and for them to feel that the Sunni Arab provinces, to feel that they have real representation.
I mean someone with clout, a former general, for example. But the problem is that there’s a concern that ties to Baathism and a lot of talk of further de-Baathification, purging further officers from Iraq’s police and military, and that makes it, I think, much more difficult.
RAY SUAREZ: Wasn’t this less of an issue when Iyad Allawi was in charge? Wasn’t the defense ministry gradually taken up more and more by people who had been in the army in the old days?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: But see now there’s a new government coming to power, and there’s new arrangements being made, new political dimensions. I think that President Jalad Talibani had indicated that there would be amnesty, which was a step in the right direction. But there’s still not a mechanism to be able to determine those who had committed terrible human rights abuses, and those that were affiliated with the Baath Party maybe to advance their own careers, to protect their families, who could potentially be a very important part of the new government.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, ambassador, you have got Kurds with a tremendous surge in the sense of their own power and potency on the Iraqi stage, but they seem to be making demands of the future Iraq. For instance defense ministry, that can’t be met right now, but this seems to be also a really important job that has to be filled right away.
PETER GALBRAITH: There’s a — the fundamental problem in Iraq is not actually forming the government, although there are issues about trying to include the Sunnis. The problem is that the three communities in Iraq: the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, and the Shiites have radically different agendas; the Kurds don’t want to be Iraqi at all.
In fact, in January they voted in a referendum some 98 percent for independence. They’re determined to maintain the status quo, their own army controlling their own natural resources. That puts them in conflict not only with the Sunni Arabs, but with the Shiites who, for example, would like to make Islam the principal source of law in Iraq. Well, that’s not going to work in Kurdistan because there the government is very strongly secular.
And this problem’s likely to get worse as Iraqis try to write a constitution, a process that I think is very unlikely to succeed because there simply is no common ground for a single country. And my sense is that if the constitutional process doesn’t work, that Iraq would do well to set it aside because a lot of these issues can be handled practically, for example, the military issue. The Kurds do have their own military. The Iraqi army doesn’t come there. It’s an arrangement that works.
But if you try to raise the issue to a constitutional level, the central government will certainly insist that it should have a monopoly on military power, the Kurds won’t agree, and there will be a deadlock. There are many issues that can be handled practically, but which could make the situation in Iraq much worse, in fact contribute to the breakup of the country, if they are tried to be resolved in a constitutional process.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the big jobs of the new assembly was to write a constitution. It took three months just to form a government. Do you agree with the ambassador that this isn’t going to be possible?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: I mean, we’re talking about drafting a constitution in less than four months, according to the timetable established by the transitional administrative law. I don’t think that’s possible. I think it’s more crucial right now to work to build the institutions that are critical to stabilize Iraq and to maybe see a process to develop a new interim constitution. But I think a permanent constitution in four months is unrealistic.
RAY SUAREZ: And the ambassador painted a picture where the desires of these three main ethnic groups are almost irreconcilable inside the borders of one country. Do you agree with that?
ERIK GUSTAFSON: Well, certainly there’s far more difference between the Iraqi Kurds and the rest of Iraq because of a separation, being a de facto autonomous area for so long, a lot of the younger Kurds growing up, not even speaking Arabic any longer. So there’s very strong Kurdish nationalism in the north.
But in the terms of the rest of Iraq, I think that Shia-Sunni differences are there, but they’re exacerbated or exaggerated by the political wrangling that’s going on among the different political groups. The problem is, is we don’t have political parties in Iraq that are nationally based, that are Iraqi, to say. Instead, a lot of them are ethnically and religiously based, and I think that has exacerbated some of those tensions. But there is a desire among a lot of Iraqis.
And they say, if you walk up to many Iraqis and ask “are you Sunni or Shia,” they won’t answer you. It’s as though walking up to an American and asking, “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” It’s just not something that’s done.
RAY SUAREZ: Eric Gustafson, Ambassador, thanks a lot.