Iraq Marks First Year as a Sovereign Nation, While Violence Continues
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GWEN IFILL: As the president prepares to address the nation tonight from North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, we turn to the view from Iraq one year after the hand-over of sovereignty. I spoke earlier this evening with John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief of the New York Times.
John Burns, welcome back. The violence seems to continue in Iraq. Today, we hear of the killing of an influential Shiite Muslim member of parliament. What can you tell us about that?
JOHN BURNS: Yes. He was the oldest member of the parliament, 87 years old, and a prominent Shiite tribal leader, assassinated with his son and three of his bodyguards in the northern district of Baghdad on his way to the national assembly, which has been in adjournment for some time because the insurgents attacked water mains outside Baghdad.
And tonight, the greens under much of Baghdad need water, the second parliamentarian assassinated out of the 275 elected in January, and yet another of these incidents, which grieves the heart of course because you have to ask yourself what an 87-year-old man, what offense he could possibly have given to anybody; a bad day altogether because another thirty to forty people killed, at least five or six suicide bombings, two of them, one in Balard, and one in Tikrit, killing American soldiers, two American soldiers killed in those two incidents, so a rather gloomy way of observing the first anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty.
GWEN IFILL: The president’s aides tell us that tonight when he speaks to the nation, he expects to talk about the — counsel Americans to be more patient with this insurgency. Are people on the ground in Iraq feeling more or less vulnerable these days?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I can give you a current answer to that, if you will. We at the New York Times sent a number of our Iraqi reporters out into the streets today, something which is more difficult for us to do because of the general security situation. And they spent the day in various neighborhoods of Baghdad and came back with a wide range of voices. And the thing that struck me, reading through these returns, if you will, of our poll, was the patience that a lot of people showed.
There are, of course, people who are very impatient. There are people who want American troops withdrawn on the instant. There are people who feel that the transfer of sovereignty was bogus, but many more people that we spoke to today counseled patience and counseled hope, and I have to say that surprised me a little bit. There were many voices who said no to immediate withdrawal of American troops, the kind of thing that’s being discussed in the Congress at the moment; that we need American troops to stay here long enough to establish security, long enough for our own troops to be able — Iraqi troops to be able to develop to the point where they can take main responsibility for security in the country.
We need the political process, which is fragile, to be protected. My feeling reading this — and I have to say this surprised me a little bit — was that if President Bush and Secretary of State (Condoleezza) Rice had read these reports, they wouldn’t have found everything in there they wanted, but they would have found at least some comfort from many of the voices that we went out and found today.
GWEN IFILL: Here in the United States, every new poll seems to show continued weakening in the president’s position in terms of what Americans see about what’s going on in Iraq. I wonder whether that weakening position that slide in public opinion that we’re seeing here in the United States, matches the reality on the ground in Iraq or perhaps even is ahead of reality.
JOHN BURNS: The situation has not got a lot better since the elections, at least on the military front. The insurgency is not weakening. It’s getting, if anything, stronger. The use of suicide car bombings is proving very demoralizing. Some days in Baghdad alone we have six, seven, eight suicide car bombs. It’s now become increasingly rare for a day to pass in which there are less than thirty or forty people killed across the country, and those are only the deaths that we hear of.
Against that, you have to set the fact that the national assembly, the transitional national assembly elected in January, and its constitutional committee, are in fact moving ahead. We learned today that the constitutional committee is perhaps only twenty-four or forty-eight hours away from settling the question of its own membership, crucial list, because, of course, they’re reaching out, trying to include, to co-opt, if you will, Sunni Arabs who boycotted the election. And the people who lead that committee continue to say that they think they can get a constitution agreed by Aug. 15, improbable as that seems to us. So there is progress on the political front, halting and faltering as it may be. But on the military front, I have to say, the hopes of January have been pretty profoundly dashed.
GWEN IFILL: Also, on the political front, there have been reports recently that there have been meetings among allied forces, or at least allied leaders in Iraq, and representatives of insurgent groups. What can you tell us about that?
JOHN BURNS: My sense of these contacts that there have been at the political level are that they have so far been rather disappointing. It’s not even clear that the people who claim to speak with the insurgents really do.
And notably, the three groups named in a story by the Sunday Times of London over the weekend, three insurgent groups, as having met with American commanders is just plain wrong. Those three groups have, each of them, issued Web site denunciations within the last 48 hours saying that they have not and will not talk to the Americans, or any representatives of the Americans.
GWEN IFILL: All right. John Burns, thank you very much.
JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure.