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Militant Violence Continues to Wrack Iraqi Capital

February 19, 2007 at 12:44 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Marc Santora, welcome. We are hearing today reports of what appears to be a coordinated attack on a U.S. combat post north of Baghdad. What can you tell us about that?

MARC SANTORA, New York Times: Yes, it’s fascinating, actually. What we saw today was a coordinated assault on what they call combat outpost about 30 miles north of Baghdad.

And while the American military is saying very little about what happened, we’ve been able to piece together from residents nearby an account of an assault this morning that began with at least one car bomb, probably included two and maybe three car bombs, followed by a siege on the base. And two American soldiers were killed, 17 wounded.

But beyond the attack itself, as the Americans moved forward with their new strategy here, while they’ll be placing these combat outpost-type places throughout Baghdad, it highlights the increased danger that they might face.

A security crackdown?

GWEN IFILL: How damaging is this to the effort that's under way to crack down on security in Baghdad, and perhaps around the country, as well?

MARC SANTORA: Well, it's a pretty ominous sign. I think, when the Americans decided that they needed to move back into Baghdad neighborhoods in a big way, it was a recognition that what they had done in the past hadn't been working.

And the merits to moving back in, they speak to how they can get better intelligence, go directly after the people as they're committing these crimes and as the violence is happening, and be connected to the communities in a way they haven't been.

But they've always been very aware of the risks that are involved. And I've spent time at one of these in Baghdad and another one north of Baghdad, in these combat outposts, and the soldiers there are keenly aware of how exposed they are.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard that the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in a conversation with President Bush just this past weekend said there was a dazzling success in this crackdown, that there had been an 80 percent drop in crime. Do these -- this market bombing over the weekend and now this attack outside of Baghdad, does that give the lie to that?

MARC SANTORA: Well, the Americans have been much more cautious than the Iraqis in trying to tamp down expectations for quick results. The prime minister's office is trying to, as much as anything else, reassure a public who has lost all faith in his ability to provide some semblance of security.

And between the bombing yesterday at the market that left 62 people dead, and then the attacks around Iraq today, not just in Baghdad, it seems that this is going to be -- not going to be a quick fight here.

Efforts to protect markets

GWEN IFILL: I'm curious about these attacks. It seems like every week we report about an attack on markets in and around Baghdad. Is there any focus being paid by security forces to reinforce security around markets, where so many people gather?

MARC SANTORA: It was an amazing thing about the attack yesterday. A Reuters photographer was embedded with U.S. troops who were patrolling in the area. And only 15 minutes before the bomb struck at the market in east Baghdad, the American troops had been on that corner patrolling, actually even taking photos.

And then 15 minutes later, the bomb struck, and 61 people died, I believe. And it just shows how hard it is to stop that particular type of attack.

I think the Americans have said that that is going to be the thing -- that's not going to be the marker of success here. Stopping individual suicide bombers will be a difficult task. But attacks like today's on the U.S. position and the U.S. outpost could, in the long run, be more damaging to try and sustain the effort here.

Barometers of success

GWEN IFILL: So what are the markers of success that they're looking for?

MARC SANTORA: They don't really put a very specific set of metrics, except to say that life returns to some sense of normalcy here in the capital, which at the moment it's not. I think they're going to try and tamp down the number of bodies that you'll find in the streets on a given day in Baghdad.

They had, for three days there, a relative lull, but today they found 20 bodies, tortured, executed and killed, so it seems to be climbing back up. They'll look at things like attacks on checkpoints and Iraqi army and police positions, which still continue unabated.

And eventually they're hoping that they can restore some bit of faith in the Iraqi public in their own security forces, which is the end goal, but a long way off.

GWEN IFILL: When you say a long way off, a lot of Americans are watching these, and it seems like if they are happening on a daily basis, these kinds of attacks. Is a long way off the same in Iraqi time as it is in American time? That is, is there an end in sight?

MARC SANTORA: Yes, I wouldn't hazard a guess if this is possible or not. But the American military here says they're going to need at least six to nine months to make the kind of impression that might be lasting. And nine months might be on the optimistic side.

Iraqis here, quite frankly, are pretty hopeless, in terms of the situation as far as Baghdad and much of the country goes.

GWEN IFILL: Marc Santora of the New York Times, thank you again for joining us.

MARC SANTORA: Thank you for having me.