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New Security Plan Aims to Stabilize Baghdad

February 8, 2007 at 2:17 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Our Iraq update comes from Damien Cave of the New York Times in Baghdad. Judy Woodruff talked with him earlier this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Damien Cave of the New York Times, thank you very much for being with us.

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to begin with the story you’ve written about, the arrest today of the deputy health minister in the Iraqi government, charged with helping the Shiite Mahdi army, charged with siphoning funds and helping those insurgents. Tell us what’s behind that story.

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, he’s been accused of funneling money that was originally slated to pay for health care in Iraq, to Shiite militias and even using ambulances to ferry weapons and militants through Sadr City in advance of American raids. It’s a pretty strong accusation, and he appears to be the most senior official accused of direct ties to militias or the sectarian violence here in Iraq so far.

Frustration with the U.S. role

Damien Cave
New York Times
The question is whether or not these guys that the Americans are arresting are, in fact, directly affiliated with the Mahdi army and its top-level commanders or ... rogue elements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the top man in the health ministry, the minister himself, is saying that this was a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. How do you explain what's going on there?

DAMIEN CAVE: Several people have said that. The complaint is that the Americans should have asked for permission to go in and search the building. In fact, the Americans have run into problems in the past, where if they announce in advance where they're going, people get tipped off and they suddenly seem to disappear.

What was interesting in this case is the American press release announcing this raid said that it was Iraqi forces that arrested the deputy minister. Witnesses, however, told us that it was a mix of American and Iraqi forces and, in fact, the Americans were very much a player here.

So there appears to be some confusion and some frustration with the American role so far, at least from the ministry's perspective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you square this with what we've seen, as described as a P.R. campaign by the Muqtada al-Sadr Mahdi army, to in effect clean up their image, to describe themselves now as a humanitarian group of community volunteers?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's interesting. The Sadr organization has been pushing for months to explain that the Mahdi army is a defensive organization, that they've been ordered only to protect shrines and clerics, and they've been beating the drum on this for quite a while.

The problem is that, as the Americans continue to arrest and find out information about some of these commanders involved with that, it seems to belie their effort to try and clean up the image.

The question is whether or not these guys that the Americans are arresting are, in fact, directly affiliated with the Mahdi army and its top-level commanders or are, in fact, rogue elements that are going off on their own to commit these acts of sectarian violence. That's the debate that's still ongoing.

The Mahdi army

Damien Cave
New York Times
[W]here there used to be a lot of gunmen in black on the street corners, there are now Iraqi army police or Iraqi army or police patrols instead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the overall posture of the Mahdi army, now that the U.S. buildup is about to begin?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's interesting. In the past few weeks, they've really slid back into the shadows.

I've spent a lot of time in Sadr City this past week. And where there used to be a lot of gunmen in black on the street corners, there are now Iraqi army police or Iraqi army or police patrols instead.

They've decided to kind of fade away and have promised that they would not fight as the new American security plan and Iraqi security plan comes into their neighborhood. The question is, again, whether or not all elements of the Mahdi army will obey that command and whether or not it will actually work on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does one know whether they will simply come back when the U.S. forces leave?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, that's what's sort of interesting. I asked a couple Sadr officials about this idea of disarmament. They kept using the word "disarm."

And when I asked them about what they would do or if they would give the guns back, they said, "Well, actually, we're just going to hide them and put them away, until we see if the government can actually give us security. And if not, well, we'll have to take them back out again."

So, at this point, it's still very much a temporary, tentative move, and we'll see, as this plan goes forward, if the Mahdi army actually stays as an organization that, as they claim, is defensive or becomes something more aggressive.

Downed U.S. helicopters

Damien Cave
New York Times
There are still disputes over whether [the helicopter] was shot down and also whether it was shot down by small-arms fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Damien Cave, there was another U.S. helicopter downed yesterday. Any new word on whether it was shot down or whether something else happened?

DAMIEN CAVE: Not that we know of. There are still disputes over whether it was shot down and also whether it was shot down by small-arms fire, as American military officials have suggested, or missiles or larger forms of weaponry that witnesses have suggested may have been the case.

What is clear is that there are more helicopters being shot at and more shot down. And as senior military commanders in the States have said, it's a question of whether or not it's just the numbers going against them or whether it's a significantly stronger effort to fire at American aircraft.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it's not known whether this is some sort of change of tactics? Because we know there have been, what, six helicopters down in the last few weeks, including one just disclosed yesterday, a contractor associated with the State Department.

DAMIEN CAVE: Right. It's not clear if it's a change in tactics or if it's simply a reinvigorated effort to fire at helicopters. It's possibly the latter, as opposed to the former, but American investigators are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on and, frankly, they're keeping this stuff very close to the vest and not really telling us too much about what they think is going on or whether or not they know exactly what might be going on.

Early reaction to U.S. troop surge

Damien Cave
New York Times
In the past couple days, several neighborhoods have experienced additional checkpoints throughout areas where there had been only maybe one or two checkpoints.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Damien, the surge of U.S. forces that's just gotten under way, what are you seeing there on the ground?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's interesting. In the past couple days, several neighborhoods have experienced additional checkpoints throughout areas where there had been only maybe one or two checkpoints, now suddenly there were four or five.

And people throughout Baghdad told us this, in Sunni areas and Shia areas. And it's not clear exactly what role this will play in the American plan and Iraqi new security plan. There have always been a lot of checkpoints here in Iraq for quite a while.

So, in some cases, people were frustrated to be discovering more. The question is whether or not this will be implemented and combined with other things along the way, as is expected, or if this is something simply, you know, a public effort in advance of some of these new folks coming in, to really show that people are on the ground and working, after complaints that the pace has been too slow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see physical signs of a larger presence yet?

DAMIEN CAVE: I mean, the only thing, like I said, are these checkpoints that appear to be increased. And, again, it's difficult to say what that means or how extensive that is.

In Sadr City, where I've been, there have been a move from the militia guys standing on the corners to the Iraqi army or police, but it's not significantly different. It doesn't feel, in the neighborhoods that I've been to, like it's under siege in the same way that perhaps Haifa Street was several weeks ago.

It's still something that appears to be coming out slowly, and we'll just have to keep an eye on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Damien Cave with the New York Times, we thank you very much, reporting from Baghdad.

DAMIEN CAVE: You're welcome.