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New Iraqi Force Charged with Securing Baghdad

February 5, 2007 at 2:20 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave of the New York Times, welcome. We’ve been hearing that there were, what, 150 people killed over the weekend between the marketplace bombing in Baghdad and more attacks today, and that some Iraqi officials have been saying as many as 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in the past week.

How much of this has to do with expectations of enhanced security coming from the United States?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, part of the problem is that it appears that Sunni insurgents have been taking advantage of what they see as a weakness in the security situation here and in anticipation of the American security plan getting started.

And the other addition to that is that there has been a Shiite holiday, Ashura, that has happened recently, which is also often a magnet for attacks. So that combination seems to have combined for several high-profile, large bombings with a lot of people killed.

Pace of the security plan

Damien Cave
The New York Times
There is still a sense that there are certain aspects of the plan that have not come as quickly as perhaps the Iraqis or some Americans expected.

GWEN IFILL: So who is it exactly who is making these accusations that the U.S. isn't moving fast enough?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's actually a wide range of people. Significantly and most often, it's Shiite leaders who say that the American plan has moved too slowly and, by undermining some of the Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army, they've left many Shiite neighborhoods open to attack, that basically the only reliable security force they had was the Mahdi Army and Shiites militias.

And now that the Americans have been tough on them and cracked down, that a lot of these neighborhoods are left naked and open to Sunni attacks, whether or not that's true, it's difficult to tell. It's very difficult to stop a truck bomb, no matter how many guys are out there guarding it.

And if there's a determination to attack some of these neighborhoods, it isn't really clear to what extent the militias or the American military or security plan would be able to stop it. But that is the sense here. There seems to be a growing sense of frustration around Iraqi Shiites, with the plan's pace and its inability to secure some of these neighborhoods so far.

GWEN IFILL: What does the U.S. military on the ground there in Baghdad say about this?

DAMIEN CAVE: They keep emphasizing that there is no specific time line. They say that the plan has not been delayed, that this is something that will roll out slowly as planned. And, in fact, there are aspects of the plan that are already in place.

In several neighborhoods there are, these precinct things they call joint security sites, in which American and Iraqi troops essentially live and work together. The effort here is to try and hold some of these neighborhoods in a way that they haven't done in the past.

But, that being said, there is still a sense that there are certain aspects of the plan that have not come as quickly as perhaps the Iraqis or some Americans expected.

'Frustration with the attacks'

GWEN IFILL: President Bush was asked today about the complaints which were contained in your story today in the New York Times. And his respond was that he was glad that the Iraqis seem so anxious to get things under way. Is that how Iraqi officials see it?

DAMIEN CAVE: I don't think that they're glad to see a bunch of attacks that are killing hundreds of people. This is a frustration and demand for security that's been long-standing. That happened before the announced American security plan.

And so I'm not sure -- you know, the president seems to be suggesting that they are just anxious to get started. And that's true, and that's been true even before the security plan got started. There's clearly frustration with the attacks and the violence here that just continues to spiral.

Iraq security force

Damien Cave
The New York Times
There are reports from both American and Iraqi officials that the units that are arriving are at half-strength or up to 60 percent strength and are not entirely prepared for what they're getting into.

GWEN IFILL: Part of the American security plan depends, of course -- as we keep hearing -- on the status of the Iraqi security plan, that is, Iraqi security forces. Is there any sense that they are where they need to be or are approaching where they need to be, in order for the plan that we've seen so far unfold actually unfold?

DAMIEN CAVE: They are definitely coming here. However, there are reports from both American and Iraqi officials that the units that are arriving are at half-strength or up to 60 percent strength and are not entirely prepared for what they're getting into.

Some Iraqis have said that this is in part why the plan has been delayed, that the Iraqi army is simply not ready and that it could be delayed for as much as 15 to 20 days.

What exactly will be delayed, if there are specific searches or specific plans, no one has said anything that specific, but there is a sense among both Iraqi and American officials that, once again, the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces are not entirely up to snuff and prepared for what they're in for.

GWEN IFILL: Who is in charge of the Iraqi piece of this? And are they in sync with the American forces?

DAMIEN CAVE: They've named a general to head the Iraqi side, General Conbar is his name. And beyond that, beyond the sort of initial top-level commanders, there's very little clarity, in terms of what the command structure will be for the Iraqis.

This is something, again, that American and Iraqi officials say are still in negotiations about and still trying to figure out how exactly this will work. The Americans keep emphasizing that this is a broad, and deep, and expansive security plan that will take time.

And to the extent that that's true or to the extent that that's reflected in the decisions about who should be the commanders, that seems to be what's going on. There have been increasing -- there have been conflicts for a long time over who should be chosen to head the Iraqi security forces under this plan. No one has disputed that that's going on, and it seems to be continuing.

A more ambitious plan?

GWEN IFILL: In fact, U.S. officials have been saying that this particular plan to enhance security in Baghdad is a couple of 100 percent larger than previous efforts. How has that manifested itself? Is there anything that you can gauge by the naked eye so far to prove that that's true?

DAMIEN CAVE: At this point, it's very difficult to say. I was embedded with troops this summer for the last effort, Operation Together Forward II. And there, the conversation was about clearing and holding and doing reconstruction. And much of what's been predicted for this case, it sounds very similar.

And until they actually get on the ground, and do it, and show how many troops are in some of these neighborhoods, it's very difficult to gauge exactly what the differences will be.

And I think that's part of the frustration for the Iraqis. They're looking for some specific results. They're looking for additional security forces keeping them safe in their neighborhoods. And as of yet, despite weeks of conversation about the security plan, the troops simply haven't arrived in many neighborhoods.

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave of the New York Times, thanks so much.

DAMIEN CAVE: You're welcome.