TOPICS > Nation

Sunni Insurgency Steps Up Attacks in Baghdad

January 22, 2007 at 5:50 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Marc Santora, welcome.

Do we have any sense of what the cause is of this latest wave of violence?

MARC SANTORA, New York Times: You know, it’s very hard to say exactly what the cause is, but this does seem to fit in with a pattern we’ve seen before, when there are periods, brief lulls, say, in the violence, where there will be some sort of agitation on the part of Sunni insurgents to once again spark a new wave of killing.

The bombing you had today with 88 dead is an extreme example of that. And last week, we saw another 65 dead at a Baghdad university mainly attended by Shiite students.

I think what we’re seeing here is that there was a brief lull, and there seemed to have been some evidence that the Shiite militias were, at the very least, laying low in anticipation of the new Baghdad security crackdown, and perhaps acting on orders from Muqtada al-Sadr himself.

But this wave of killings, it’ll be — there’s a lot of fear that this will spark a renewed wave of violence.

Sunni-Shiite violence

GWEN IFILL: But the wave of killings, the Baghdad market bombing today and the university bombing last week, are considered to be the work of Sunni suicide bombers?

MARC SANTORA: That is the belief, and it seems to fit with the pattern. You'll remember last fall there was the bombing in Sadr City that killed over 200, I believe, which is, again, part of the pattern. So that's the current thinking. And it seems to make sense.

GWEN IFILL: So why then, as you just suggested, are the Shiite militia laying low? What's behind that?

MARC SANTORA: Well, there have been a series of arrests recently of top Mahdi Army leaders. And in previous months, when the Americans would arrest senior leaders of the militia, they'd find themselves back on the street often through political interference.

And military commanders tell us that, recently, they've been able to arrest these people and keep them. I don't know exactly what's behind it. There's some thought that the pressure put on the Maliki government was great enough to get him to, at the very least, not directly interfere with some of these arrests.

And, again, it could just be a case of where they're trying to wait out the Americans, figuring that this new initiative will go the way that the previous ones have. The Americans will come for a bit, and then once they leave for the Iraqi security forces to take over, they can step back in.

So we've seen some evidence that militia members are heading south, that some are at least not as openly conducting the death squad activity that we had seen before.

And it's very hard to know any of this. The only anecdotal evidence we have are things like the body count, the number of people picked up around the streets of Baghdad in a given week. And for the last few weeks, those numbers have been a bit lower than they have been in the past.

The impact of the president's plan

GWEN IFILL: So here stateside, we are kind of obsessed by what is the meaning and the impact of the surge proposal the president has put out. Is there any way on the ground there to make a link between these increased number of casualties we've seen, not only among Iraqis, but also among U.S. military, and that proposal?

MARC SANTORA: I think if you're asking about what the impact of this might be, I think one really fascinating thing at this moment is we're about to see a strategy that's going to put American troops in a position they really haven't been in since 2003, which is right in the middle of some of these neighborhoods that fall on the sectarian fault lines.

I recently spent part of last week with the Charlie Company of the First Cav, who is in a neighborhood called Ghazaliya, which is one of the worst-hit neighborhoods, in terms of sectarian violence, where they're putting together what they're calling these joint security stations, where they're meant to be working with the Iraqi security forces and spending time trying to build up and restore trust in those forces.

But no idea how that will work. But what it's definitely going to do is place American troops in the middle of some of this sectarian fighting. And so, should the events of today spiral into a cycle of even more violence, you're going to see American troops caught squarely in the middle of that.

A change in military strategy

GWEN IFILL: So as an embedded reporter traveling with the troops on the ground, does the surge look different from that angle than it does from the policy standpoint here at a distance?

MARC SANTORA: Well, I think "surge" might be a little misleading. This effort is very troop-intensive, but it's really a pretty big change in strategy.

I mean, we've seen in the past where we had, you know, clear, build, hold, and different strategies where the Americans would come into a neighborhood and try and effect some change and then leave it to unprepared Iraqi security forces.

What the Americans are doing now are building bases where troops are going to be stationed in some of these neighborhoods in Baghdad where, quite frankly, for the past three years, they've really mainly dealt with through patrols, passing through the neighborhood, leaving, and then in the evenings the chaos or when they're not around the chaos would ensue.

And what you're going to see here, modeled largely on what was done out at Tal Afar, are American troops going to these neighborhoods, staying there, and putting themselves right in between these warring parties.

GWEN IFILL: Any evidence that any of these American troops will be returning to places like Sadr City?

MARC SANTORA: Well, that's a big question. Where I was is a Sunni enclave. And it remains to be seen how they approach the Shiite strongholds.

In Sunni neighborhoods, you have basically a situation where services and goods and other things have been cut off from people for quite a while. And, quite frankly, they're losing in their struggle with the Shiite militias, whereas in some of the Shiite neighborhoods like Sadr City, you've got services. You have people on the streets. You might not have as welcoming an attitude.

And so there's some debate among the American military command whether they decide to isolate those areas or directly go in.

Maliki's role

GWEN IFILL: And how do you watch what Prime Minister Maliki does in the middle of this? There is so much attention being paid to his ability to step up. Is there any evidence that he is taking some moves to respond to that concern?

MARC SANTORA: You know, it is so hard to know. You know, he says the things that people want to hear. But I think, you know, the real evidence will be, do we see a real change in the Iraqi security forces?

There's some evidence that the political interference, at least at the moment, has died down a bit but, you know, it would be way too early to try and speculate if it's a change of heart or what's behind that.

GWEN IFILL: OK. We'll be watching, Marc Santora of the New York Times. Thank you very much.

MARC SANTORA: Thank you for having me.