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Suicide Bomber Hits Iraq’s Heavily Fortified Green Zone

April 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The blast ripped through the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament building with devastating and deadly force. Stunned workers were filmed running for the exits, minutes after the blast.

Among the dead, two Sunni and one Shiite lawmaker.

Today’s attack was not the first inside what is supposed to be Iraq’s most secure area, but it was the deadliest in two-and-a-half years. U.S. Major General William Caldwell spoke to reporters shortly after the blast.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, U.S. Army: What we know right now is that, inside the parliamentary building on the second floor in the cafeteria, sometime this afternoon, about 2:30, it appears now from the eyewitness accounts there was a suicide vest.

MARGARET WARNER: Time magazine reported that al-Qaida had claimed responsibility, but Caldwell did not confirm that.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL: We don’t at this point have any indications who it is, but clearly, we’re looking at it closely. We do know in the past that suicide vests have been used predominantly by al-Qaida, and obviously we’ll go to great detail to look at this one.

MARGARET WARNER: The heavily fortified Green Zone covers about four square miles in the heart of Baghdad. Now known officially as the International Zone, it’s home to many Iraqi government agencies and diplomatic missions, including the Iraqi parliament in the north and the U.S. embassy by the Tigris River. Five thousand Iraqis also live inside the zone.

The area is protected by eight miles of barrier fences and checkpoints guarded by both Iraqi and American forces. It’s where most foreign officials start and end their visits to Baghdad.

But the zone has not been impenetrable from inside or outside attack. The most deadly one previously came in October 2004, when insurgents detonated explosives at a popular cafe and market, killing six. More recently, a rocket attack last month killed two Americans, a soldier and a contractor.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon personally experienced the danger there three weeks ago, as he was concluding a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That mortar shell shot into the zone landed 80 yards from Maliki’s house; it exploded just seconds after the secretary-general had praised security improvements on the ground in Iraq.

Holes in the security

Yochi Dreazen
The Wall Street Journal
It is heavily fortified. It's also true that, with a space as big as the Green Zone, with as many Iraqis and Americans living inside of it, passing in and out of it everyday, there are holes in the security.

MARGARET WARNER: And for an assessment of security in Baghdad's Green Zone these days and how an attack like today's might have occurred, we're joined by two men who have spent considerable time there: Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 to January 2006; and Yochi Dreazen, correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, he left Iraq last month after spending seven weeks reporting there.

Welcome to you both.

You both have been there. You've both been not only to the Green Zone but this very building. Describe where this occurred. Give us a sense of it.

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: Well, it's on the second floor. It's an open space. The cafeteria is right in the middle. On the right-hand side is where the parliament hall, they actually hold their meeting. It's a big conference hall.

On the left-hand side there is another conference hall. This is where I used to hold my press briefings. But right in the middle is where members of parliament gather. Many journalists go around and meet people, and it's an open space.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you surprised, Yochi Dreazen, something like this could have happened there?

YOCHI DREAZEN: No. There are a fair number of Iraqi lawmakers and their senior staff who have badges which allow them to enter the Green Zone without being searched.

Also, some of the gates, particularly the gates coming directly close to the parliament building, the security there is somewhat chaotic. It's under Iraqi control. If you're outside and you see cars, some being searched more heavily, some searched less heavily. It does not come as a huge surprise to me.

MARGARET WARNER: So even though we always refer to this as the heavily fortified Green Zone, you're saying it's much more porous than we know?

YOCHI DREAZEN: It is heavily fortified. It's also true that, with a space as big as the Green Zone, with as many Iraqis and Americans living inside of it, passing in and out of it everyday, there are holes in the security.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your sense of the security in the Green Zone?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, the Green Zone is not secure, but I thought that the building itself was, because there are only two or three entrances to the building. And I thought there has been enough attention paid to securing it.

It is true that new security guards brought in by the members of parliament have badges and they can move in and out, but everything that moves in and out of the building is searched. So it's a serious breach of security.

MARGARET WARNER: But explain this a little more. All right, who has access to this building and to this particular area?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, members of the public can actually get to the building, but they're searched well. They must have a prior permission to enter the building. So members of the public can come in.

But most importantly, those who can move in with weapons, with cars, are members of parliament and the guards that are surrounding them. And depending on how serious or heavyweight -- how much of a heavyweight they are, they can actually maybe bypass some of the regulations.

I thought they were strict. I'm surprised to know that recently they must have relaxed their control over it.

MARGARET WARNER: So is that your sense, Yochi Dreazen, that, in fact, these legislators have their own armed guards?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Yes. They have their own armed guards. They have senior staff. It's also worth pointing out that the security at the Iraqi parliament building is significantly less intense than it is at the American embassy.

To get to the American embassy, there's a walled-in guard tower next to a walled-in guard booth. Even with a press badge and an American passport, you can't enter the building at all.

Conversely, the parliament building, it's next door to the press building, so any reporter can get in. Most members of the public can get in. It's true that they're searched, but you can get much closer to the building with relatively little I.D. than you can to the American embassy, even with full I.D.

Bringing in family as security

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi Government Spokesman
Members of parliament argue, "We do not trust the government, because it's a bit factional." They have more trust in bringing their own tribesmen or family men as security.

MARGARET WARNER: But the legislators and their staffs and militias can sometimes just bypass the whole security system?

YOCHI DREAZEN: It's more than the security system exists -- there are VIP badges which were put in place at the request of the Iraqi government for justifiable reasons. As a sovereign government, the argument was its lawmakers should not be searched by American soldiers, which makes some sense.

The issue is those badges have spread. Members of parliament have them. Their bodyguards have them. Their senior staff have them. So it's not a small number of people who have those badges.

MARGARET WARNER: So who mans the security at the parliament building? Yochi mentioned American soldiers.

LAITH KUBBA: It used to be American soldiers. Then, at least when I was there, there were private firms contracted to do it, paid by the Iraqi government.

Iraqi security is there, but I would highlight that, following the elections that took place in December '05, merely 100 new members of parliament moved in. Each one of them is entitled 10 hand-picked private security men. They don't come accredited from the Iraqi government; they just bring their own men, so you're talking roughly about 1,000 new men brought in, given credentials to move in and out of the zone.

MARGARET WARNER: And does anyone vet them? Is there any kind of overall security operation that vets them?

LAITH KUBBA: Very loose. The reason is simple. Members of parliament argue, "We do not trust the government, because it's a bit factional." They have more trust in bringing their own tribesmen or family men as security.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it's probably dangerous to speculate who did this. But are both of you saying that really any of the warring factions, the factions that are warring in the street, had, potentially, access to the Green Zone and to this building?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Yes, there's been a feeling for quite some time that insurgents -- the group has always left someone indeterminate but that they have access to the Green Zone, either because they have badges or because they've bribed someone or because they've threatened someone.

It's been interesting to notice of late that the rocket attacks have been getting significantly more accurate. And the presumption, when you talk to Americans in the Green Zone who do security, is that folks on the ground in the Green Zone are relaying information back outside the Green Zone.

MARGARET WARNER: So even though some of these rocket attacks, they tend to come from outside, that it's being coordinated by someone on the inside?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Exactly. You could say the rocket yesterday landed here, the rocket today landed much closer.

MARGARET WARNER: Which enables them to pinpoint it?


Green Zone security getting worse

Yochi Dreazen
The Wall Street Journal
Individual houses in the Green Zone are walled off. Individual houses have guard towers, so what you see outside and inside is becoming almost identical.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does this say about security overall in the Green Zone? I mean, is it getting worse?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, security in the Green Zone is getting worse. But to put that incident in context, one must highlight the fact recently the insurgency, the mainstream insurgency, has been talking to the Americans and to the Iraqi government, and there is a backlash by al-Qaida, who is feeling the heat.

And I think, in that gray area, al-Qaida, it seems to me -- all the fingerprints indicate this is not part of the insurgency work. It seems to me very much part of al-Qaida work and their serious attempts to demonstrate that, even if the insurgency strikes a deal with the Iraqi government, they're still out there and they will not go back easily.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying it could be even an intra -- not only just Sunni, but intra-insurgency struggle?

LAITH KUBBA: Exactly. I think it's very much -- I would narrow it down to al-Qaida demonstrating its will and ability way above what the insurgency might do in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And by al-Qaida, you mean essentially foreign fighters?

LAITH KUBBA: Foreign fighters who are leading that effort in Iraq. Recently, they've been fought against by tribesmen, Sunni tribesmen...

MARGARET WARNER: In Anbar province.

LAITH KUBBA: ... in Anbar Province, and by mainstream insurgency. They've made many statements distancing themselves from al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Who else might have a motive to do this? Who else might benefit?

YOCHI DREAZEN: You could pick one of almost a big panoply. If I could just mention something in response, the argument that it's foreign fighters has been made for several years by American and Iraqi officials. When you ask the American military for the proof, they can never provide it.

The numbers of foreign fighters arrested is very small; the number of foreign fighters killed is very small. So, regardless of the leadership, the likelihood of this bomber being Iraqi is very, very high. I also want...

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you. Do you think there is a distinction between the al-Qaida insurgency and other elements of the insurgency?

YOCHI DREAZEN: I think there's a distinction between the religious groups, not all of whom are al-Qaida, the religious Sunni groups, and some of the nationalist groups, who may or may not be religious. I don't think it necessarily breaks down as neatly as al-Qaida on the one side, Baathists or nationalists on the other. Each category is fairly broad.

I just wanted to mention, though, briefly, you had asked about the Green Zone. One thing I noticed this trip relative to previous ones is that the security now in the Green Zone is identical to the security outside the Green Zone, which is itself a big change.

If you see American Humvees on the highway, they're always in convoys of three, with a sign saying, "Don't approach within 100 meters or we'll shoot."

MARGARET WARNER: This is on the open highway?

YOCHI DREAZEN: On the open highway. And you now see that in the Green Zone, as well. So Humvees race by. You'll see traffic stop and not move closer. They'll fire warning shots if necessary. Individual houses in the Green Zone are walled off. Individual houses have guard towers, so what you see outside and inside is becoming almost identical.

MARGARET WARNER: And how long has this been going on?

YOCHI DREAZEN: This has been intensifying over the last year, but I've never seen it like it is now, especially with houses. On a given block, you'll make the turnoff of a road, and every house will be walled, every house will have guards in front, every house will have a guard tower. And that's in the Green Zone.

Suspicion among the factions

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi Government Spokesman
I think the message is the Iraqi security forces cannot maintain security over the Green Zone. It is porous. The possibilities of such attacks being repeated in the future is high.

MARGARET WARNER: So the message of that is that nobody living in these various places really trusts the Iraqi security forces?

LAITH KUBBA: I think the message is the Iraqi security forces cannot maintain security over the Green Zone. It is porous. The possibilities of such attacks being repeated in the future is high.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is it going to take?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I would have thought to improve the situation the Iraqi government needs to move much faster on their reconciliation, concluding the political process, passing some of the constitutional amendments, amending the de-Baathification measures. This would create a better environment and bring at least big chunks of the insurgency into the political process and isolate al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think an attack like this, with the finger-pointing going on now -- it already seems to have started, from listening to the government's spokespeople -- that that's going to increase suspicion among the factions?

YOCHI DREAZEN: Definitely, as it will of Americans in general towards Iraqis in general.

What you're seeing in the Green Zone is kind of the dynamic of Iraq but writ small. You see Iraq now pulling apart, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, Sunnis with Sunnis, Shiites with Shiites, the mixed neighborhoods being depopulated. So you're seeing Iraq become smaller versions of Iraq.

You're seeing the same thing in the Green Zone. In the Green Zone, you're seeing mini-Green Zones within the Green Zone. Every company compound is walled off from the Green Zone itself. The U.S. embassy compound is walled off, and embassy staff can't leave, even in the Green Zone. So you're seeing the Green Zone itself turn into smaller, mini-Green Zones one after the other.

MARGARET WARNER: Grim picture. Yochi Dreazen, Laith Kubba, thank you.