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A Series of Explosions Rip Through Baghdad, At Least 35 are Killed

February 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Douglas Struck, welcome. As night came to Baghdad, what was the overall toll from today’s bombings?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: More than 30. The exact number is still a little bit iffy, but we’ve had such a succession of bombs it’s hard to even keep track. There were at least four suicide bombings in and around Baghdad, three of them at Shiite mosques. There was a mortar attack or two, a couple of gunshot ambushes. It’s quite frankly been hard to keep the scorecard today.

RAY SUAREZ: Were some of them particularly deadly?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: Yes. The first bomb attack at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad killed 15 persons, which was a tough toll. And this comes as Shiites had expected to be targeted, because it is the height of their religious rites, called Ashura, in which they atone for the death of Hussein.

It’s a time that last year brought massive bombings and nearly 170 deaths, so there was an expectation that there would be violence today and unfortunately the expectation is that it will continue tomorrow.

RAY SUAREZ: And who is the Hussein that they remember at this Ashura holiday?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: Hussein in 662 A.D. was — he was the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. He was killed in battle in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, and the Shiites atone for the betrayal that led to his death.

So you see processions around the town in which Shiites symbolically whip themselves with chains. It’s a very somber, and frankly a little bit morbid to outsiders, rite, but it is one that is held deeply by the Shiites. It’s one that they could not practice under Saddam Hussein, so the sort of public display of practice of this rite is really an underscoring of the importance of religion in this society right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Have there been any claims of responsibility and are the Iraqi authorities assuming that these attacks are coordinated?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: There’s never been a clear understanding of how much coordination goes on, but to the extent that there was an expectation that there would be violence today, and indeed there was, there is at least some sort of a rough master game plan. There have been blames of responsibility.

One of the top Iraqi officials blamed Zarqawi, the Jordanian who is said to be behind many of the attacks of the insurgency. But all of this sort of points to the question, no one’s really sure exactly who and exactly and exactly how many are behind this spate of violence. But the violence is so pervasive these days that it’s a fairly large group.

RAY SUAREZ: All during the attacks specifically aimed at Shiite civilians, clerical leaders have counseled restraint and no retaliation. Is that resolve starting to weaken? Is there any sign that there may is there any sign that there may be a punch-back?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: A violent punch-back, no, because there still is that very strong message that you referred to coming out of the mosques. Today, being Friday, is a day for the Friday prayers, and the message was repeated.

The Shiite religious leaders firmly believe that they cannot strike back, they cannot be drawn into this lure of violence that could lead to civil war and would ruin their one chance for — to assume the political power of this country, which they are just about to do. There is signs, however, that when they do assume political power, there will be some payback of sorts.

There were sermons today at Friday prayers that specifically warned that they would further cleanse the government of Iraq from former Baathist officers. And that’s pretty disturbing and alarming and is seen as a possibility of bringing retaliation from some of those former officers who feel they have nothing to lose.

RAY SUAREZ: So the election results strengthen the Shiite political hand in such a way that the attacks may make them less open to conciliation as they form a government?

DOUGLAS STRUCK: No. There is still a strong unity among the Shiites and Sunnis and Kurdish political players that there has to be roughly some sort of government of national unity; that all the players have to be involved in the government. But, of course, when you get below that platitude, you find that each of those players has their own agenda.

And one of the things that is coming out on the Shiite agenda as being very strong is this issue of de-Baathification, that is cleansing, or in their terms “purifying,” the government of former Baathist leaders. And that has the potential for creating some real problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Doug Struck of the Washington Post is in Baghdad. Thanks for being with us.

DOUGLAS STRUCK: My pleasure.