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Relative Calm Returns to Iraq After Bloody Clashes

February 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong, welcome. This was the first afternoon since last week’s bombings that the curfews were lifted. Were Baghdad and other cities calmer places today?

EDWARD WONG: They definitely were. I think Baghdad was fairly calm over the weekend. Basically what you saw today was people going back to normal life. There was a lot of traffic on the streets. There was the usual Baghdad gridlock where there were entire boulevards or avenues where you couldn’t move an inch in your car for 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes, so, you know, kind of an irritation if you wanted to get somewhere. It was a sign that people were trying to get back to normal.

You saw men sitting in cafes drinking tea. You saw children playing in the streets. You saw people going out to the market again, getting food, getting cooking fuel. So, you had a sense that normalcy had returned. The government was also back at work again.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, while the curfews were still on, how did they affect the daily lives of average Iraqis?

EDWARD WONG: Well, there were a lot of shops that were closed. A lot of people stayed home and didn’t venture farther than their neighbor’s homes or their local mosque. A lot of people couldn’t drive in cars during the vehicle curfew. And a couple days there was just a window of two or three hours where people were allowed to take to the streets in cars and try and rush to get food for the day. So that’s like today you saw a lot of people going to the markets. And those were fairly crowded.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week right after the Askariya mosque, the Shiite shrine, was bombed, people were talking about a country on the brink of civil war. Who or what stopped that continuing violence and that march toward real sectarian warfare?

EDWARD WONG: I think in the end it was a lot of the clerics and political leaders coming out basically a few hours after the bombing and the next day and basically trying to come together in a show of unity. We saw some signs of clerics from both more radical Shiite groups and more radical Sunni groups praying together at mosques. Those were televised. We saw political leaders coming in in emergency meeting on Saturday night under the prime minister’s watch, and they came out on television and basically told people that they were forming advisory council that would include Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds to look into what had happened.

So I think a lot of the people seeing leaders of the country, whether it was more radical clerics or more moderate politicians coming together and telling people to calm down, I think that gave people a sense that they had to move forward with this.

Also, the other thing that we have to remember is that a lot of the violence was perpetrated by a select group of people. Some are accusing the Mahdi militia of being the people who started up some of the mob violence around Sunni mosques, so it wasn’t a wholesale conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that we were watching last week.

RAY SUAREZ: Did some of these strange political bedfellows making common cause show just how seriously the leadership was taking the threat of civil war?

EDWARD WONG: That’s right. I think that a lot of the leaders realized that they would have a lot to lose. The country would have a lot to lose if it did boil over. And I think the Americans also tried to play a role in that. I know that American diplomats, political officers, the ambassador himself made a lot of calls during that time period trying to get Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds to both sit down and talk with each other.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the recently trained Iraqi security forces, have they been very useful in keeping order?

EDWARD WONG: Well, in general during the first surge of violence last week we saw a lot of police officers stand aside. They were either — they either felt they were helpless or they did not want to join in and try to prevent the mobs from their assaults. And so I think we’re hearing a lot of people who say they’re disappointed in how the police worked.

There were some instances that we heard of where the police tried to stop some attacks, but in general these mobs did come out. They were successful in attacking mosques and the police weren’t there to stop them.

We’re hearing a lot of criticisms from the Sunni political leaders saying that this is just a sign that police are dominated by Shiite militias and that the next people who take charge of the police force, the ones in the next government, cannot be sectarian. They cannot be Shiites, which is basically what the Americans have been pushing for.

RAY SUAREZ: Recently Sunni-Arab leaders announced they were leaving the negotiations to create a new government. Then they said they were back. What happened?

EDWARD WONG: Well, they said basically yesterday we talked with the lead Sunni negotiator for the main bloc. He basically said that the Sunnis were ready to come back. He said that the Shiites had agreed to meet the promises of the Sunnis.

They’re still a little bit suspicious because they say they’ve heard a lot of promises from Shiite leaders in the past. And they want to make sure the Shiites follow through with this, but they said as long as those promises are kept, then they’re ready to come back to the talks.

Even now, they’re meeting — the main bloc is meeting with the representatives of the Mahdi army, which is the militia that started a lot of the violence. And they’re talking among themselves so we’re seeing engagement by the main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi consensus front.

And I think that just the fear of full-scale civil war enveloping the country really made them think twice about whether it was smart to try and walk away from forming a new government.

RAY SUAREZ: So that rising violence may actually push a political solution?

EDWARD WONG: Well, I think what it pushed is it pushed the Sunnis to realize that they needed to overhaul the current government. Like I said, they felt frustrated when they saw the police standing aside not doing anything. They felt that this was because Shiite militias dominated the police forces and a lot of them feel that in the next government they’ll be able to change this. So I think they’re looking to a political solution as a way of making practical changes to the government as a whole and in particular the security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: And, finally, Ed, what’s the latest on the status of the kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll?

EDWARD WONG: Today the interior minister said that they had the address of the place where she was first held when she was kidnapped. I’m not sure whether that will lead to anything. But people here are obviously keeping their hopes up. The interior minister also said that he had information that she was alive. And Ambassador Khalilzad also said the same thing in an interview earlier today. So we’re waiting and seeing what might come of all that.

RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong of the New York Times, thanks for joining us.

EDWARD WONG: Great. Thanks a lot, Ray.