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Baghdad Bombings Kill Scores in Worst Violence in Months

April 18, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Ed Wong, welcome. Defense Secretary Bob Gates today accused al-Qaida, as he put it, of being behind these horrific attacks today. Do local commanders on the ground and Iraqi officials share that view?

EDWARD WONG, New York Times: Well, no one’s come out and said exactly who they think is responsible. We haven’t spoken to any commanders who really pinpointed it on anyone, and there’s been no claim of responsibility yet from any group.

But oftentimes these types of bombings are the hallmark of a group like al-Qaida. At this point in the war, al-Qaida is a very amorphous term. It’s not really a group of foreign fighters or event a type of group that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started. There are a lot of Iraqis in Iraqi tribes who have become members of al-Qaida and have become radicalized, so al-Qaida is a very blanket term for a lot of these very militant Sunni-oriented groups in Iraq.

Shia 'patience is wearing thin'

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you were in Sadr City, I understand, today when the attack at the entrance, one of the checkpoints into Sadr City, went off. And you were interviewing, I gather, a local Shiite political figure. What was his reaction?

EDWARD WONG: I was in the main office of Muqtada al-Sadr inside Sadr City. I was interviewing one of his leading political figures. When the explosion happened, it shook the office. Obviously, I was a little shaken by it, as were some other people in the room. He just sort of shrugged it off, smiled, and said that that happens a lot.

He's saying that they usually get one or two security incidents in Sadr City each week, a car bombing or suicide vest bombing or some other type of attack.

I do get the sense that their patience, the patience of a lot of the Shia leaders out in Sadr City, as well as elsewhere, is wearing thin, because during the security plan, the Americans have not been able to clamp down on the suicide bombers and the bombings and these largely target Shia areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Do the Shiite political figures you speak with think that, because the Shiite militia have dialed back on their activities, that that's part of the -- that's one of the factors here?

EDWARD WONG: A lot of the Shia we've spoken to over the last month have said, what would be the scenario now if the Mahdi Army were more active? The Mahdi Army is the militia that Muqtada al-Sadr commands.

And a lot of Shia, especially the poorer, more downtrodden Shia look to it as their protector. And they wonder whether the Shia militias would do a better job of protecting them from these bombs than the security forces or the Americans.

Bombings are 'very cyclical'

MARGARET WARNER: To what do both the Americans and the Iraqi officials attribute this upsurge in really spectacular bombings in the past 10 days? You've had the bombing of the parliament; you had the blowing up of that very prominent bridge over the Tigris; and then, of course, today, particularly that horrific one at the market. What do they think is behind this?

EDWARD WONG: Well, it isn't clear. I mean, the bombings often come in cycles. Throughout the course of this war, we've seen a week or two-week period when bombings might surge, and then there will be a quiet period for a little while, and then the bombings will surge again. So it's very cyclical.

And no security plan has really been able to stop the bombings. Even during the times of the elections here, when they had full curfews, around-the-clock sort of traffic bans on the streets, and troops everywhere, there have been lots of bombing attacks.

So the bombings have -- or basically, a tactic that a lot of these Sunni militant groups have used to enormous advantage throughout the war. And at the current time, there seems to be no way of stopping them. I think it's a huge challenge for the Americans, and American commanders acknowledge that they really have to get this under control if they want to make the security plan succeed.

Sadr and Mahdi Army

MARGARET WARNER: And are you getting any indications -- you talked about how the man on the street, the Shiite street, feels about the Mahdi Army. Do you get any indication from Shiite officials or Sadr officials that, in fact, they may resume some of their activities, death squads and so on?

EDWARD WONG: Well, first of all, when you talk to Sadr officials, none of them will admit or say that they're running death squads or that the Mahdi Army is running death squads. The man I was speaking to today said, basically, the Mahdi Army does security and it reacts to attacks. It doesn't take offensive action against other communities.

And when I pressed him on the issue of whether or not the militia would start reacting to attacks like the ones we saw today, he basically said that they're still willing to give the security plan a little bit more of a chance right now, even though he said that he believes the plan has basically failed.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Sadr did pull, as we know, his six cabinet ministers out of the Maliki government, saying that Maliki was refusing to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Is there intensifying political pressure in Baghdad to set a timetable? Or is that only Sadr and his people in parliament aren't going to be pushing for that?

EDWARD WONG: The only major political figure that has been really pushing for a timetable, at least on the Shia side, is Muqtada al-Sadr. When you talk to a lot of the other people, they basically say they don't want any American withdrawal until the Iraqi security forces are really able to handle the situation, and they don't want to set a timetable.

I think they realize that it's a very complicated situation. There is a civil war here in Iraq, and they want the Americans to be here to try and stop some of the bloodshed. You hear that, both from a lot of the Shia leaders, from the Kurds, who also have a lot of stake in the American presence here, especially with a lot of the saber-rattling that's going on in Turkey.

And the Sunni Arabs really see the Americans, the moderate Sunni Arabs, really see the Americans as a bulwark against the hard-line Shia militias. So in some of the Sunni neighborhoods, you hear Sunnis who a few years ago were supporting the insurgency against the American. You hear them saying they want the Americans in their streets and their neighborhoods, because they don't want the Shia militias coming back into their neighborhood.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ed, Ed Wong of the New York Times, thank you.

EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot.