Two Days Of Killings Shake Iraq
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RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome. Let’s start with this latest insurgent attack on a police station. Where was it this time?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: This time, it was south of Baghdad. There was a handful of insurgents that fired a lot of mortars and RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, at this police station. I think they killed one police officer; our casualty counts often aren’t accurate right away.
But they didn’t free any prisoners, and that’s what we saw yesterday. We had seen this major attack that involved over 200 insurgents surrounding a police station north of Baghdad in a pretty volatile area, and they stormed the police station, killed — I think it was over 15 police officers — and then escaped with 30 prisoners, who were pretty high-profile insurgent suspects.
And both of these attacks are kind of a throwback to what we saw two years ago in the insurgency with these organized attacks on police stations. We haven’t seen that so often, and that’s why it was kind of unusual to have these two attacks back to back.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, does it provide some evidence that there’s a larger strategy at work, that these groups talk to each other?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It’s hard to tell. It’s really hard to tell. I mean, the fact that they didn’t free any prisoners today and there weren’t — it’s not clear if there were even any insurgent suspects at the police station they attacked today, shows it might have been a totally different operation.
What’s unusual is we haven’t seen these attacks on government installations like this for a while. It’s been more of the sectarian violence theme, attacking civilians in areas where, let’s say, there’s a large amount of Shiites.
This week, we’ve seen a number of Shiite pilgrims who are going to Karbala in southern Iraq to celebrate a big Shiite festival. They’ve been gunned down and killed, targeted because they’re wearing all black, they’re obviously headed to Karbala, and they’re Shiite.
So that’s sort of been the theme of the violence over the last couple of days, and that’s why this sort of came out of the blue.
RAY SUAREZ: Along with those…
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: And let me add one point.
RAY SUAREZ: Yes, sure.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: The authorities I spoke with about the attacks at these two police stations told me that they have been bracing for attacks against Shiite pilgrims, and that’s where all their energies were being spent, was to protect the Shiite civilians who were going to Karbala in southern Iraq.
So I think, at least to the attack yesterday, they were a bit blindsided by it, because they had been preparing for a totally different threat and then encountered one they didn’t expect.
RAY SUAREZ: Along with the attacks on life and limb, are you also starting to see large numbers of people being rousted from their homes, made refugees inside their own country?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: That’s a really big issue. I don’t know if enough can be said about that. What we’re seeing is, is we’re seeing assassinations and, you know, collective assassinations or group killings, where you’ll have one militia go into a neighborhood, usually a mixed Sunni Arab and Shiite neighborhood, and kill a few people of a certain sect.
And that’s done to send a signal for that whole group to get out of the neighborhood, and that’s exactly what happens.
I talked to some people today that told me these gripping stories about how a young man that they were related to was working in a pet shop, had no involvement with the insurgency. He was a Sunni Arab; it didn’t sound like he was militant at all.
And one day, a week ago, a number of cars pulled up in front of his pet shop, grabbed him, took him away. And the next day, his body was found horribly tortured on the street not far away. As soon as that happened, his family left the neighborhood, and they were asking me if I could help them go back to get things from their house, because they’re too scared to make that journey themselves. And needless to say, I’m not going back there, either.
RAY SUAREZ: You were in Iraq for a long stretch earlier in the war; now you’ve been away for a good period of time. Now that you’re back, do you see any big changes in the country?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: It’s hard; I mean, that’s a tough question. I got back about a week ago, and my first instinct was that it was quieter. There were less attacks.
Before when I was here, we would get woken up almost on a daily basis by a loud explosion, which is really frightening when you’re sleeping, to get jarred awake like that. That doesn’t really happen much anymore.
We’re near the Green Zone, and that used to be the target of many mortar attacks. You don’t see that as much. You don’t see American troops on the street as much.
So, in many ways, it almost feels quieter. But if you poke a little beneath the surface, I think you realize that tensions are higher than they’ve been.
And there’s a sense of — there really is a sense of hopelessness. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that say they want to leave; they don’t think it’s going to get better; it’s only going to get worse.
I mean, before at least there was this hope that elections, the political process, these dates in the future might mean something to the people. But now they’ve come and gone, and things are just getting worse. And I think this attack on the Samarra mosque last month really lifted the lid on a lot of things that had been simmering under the surface.
RAY SUAREZ: And how has the day-to-day job of covering Iraq as a foreign reporter changed?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: You know, it’s hard to get a sense of how dangerous it is, because you can go out, you can observe, you can talk to people, and nothing will happen. And I think, in a way, the fact that there’s so much focus on these sectarian issues might make our job — and, you know, I hope I’m not totally jinxing myself — a little easier.
Because there is less people that are venting about the American occupation, less people that are focused on, you know, what they perceived was the wrongness of foreign troops in their country. It’s more inward-looking, and we’re less of a factor. The foreign journalist, the foreign person in Iraq is less of a factor.
So, in that way, I think things have opened up a little bit. I haven’t had any problem meeting with people, talking with them, having them share their stories, but you have to be very careful where you go.
There’s only certain neighborhoods in Baghdad we go; there’s only certain areas in the country that we’ll go. If you leave Baghdad, it basically has to be on a military flight, because it’s too dangerous to go by road.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned having to be careful when you move around the country. Let’s take the example of this latest police station attack. Is that something you’re able to go to yourself or do you use stringers? How does an organization like the Times find out what it needs to know?
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, there’s a few different ways to do it. If it’s in a place like Baghdad, we may be able to go, if it’s in a safe neighborhood and it’s a big enough story.
Then we have a pretty competent Iraqi staff that knows the country very well, has had a lot of experience going to different places. And we often use them to drive to places outside of Baghdad that we can’t get to.
Sometimes, though, that’s even dangerous for them, and we have stringers in different cities all across Baghdad who we can call and get news from. We have stringers in Najaf, from Karbala and Basra, in Kirkuk, all over the country, even in places like Fallujah and Ramadi.
RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, thanks for being with us.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.