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Militants Attack Shiite Shrine in Samarra for Second Time

June 13, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Bombings and politics in Iraq. We get an update from Damien Cave of the New York Times in Baghdad. Margaret Warner talked with him earlier this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Damien Cave, welcome. Let’s talk first about the bombing, once again, of that revered Shiite mosque and shrine in Samarra. Now, U.S. officials here, Iraqi officials are blaming it on al-Qaida. We also read, though, that 15 policemen were detained at the area.

What is the latest thinking that you’ve reported on about who was responsible and how they managed to get this close to this well-guarded site?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, it’s not mutually exclusive that it would be al-Qaida or the police. American officials and Iraqis in the area have felt for a while that some of the police force that was protecting the shrine may have been infiltrated by al-Qaida. So it’s possible that they were police forces that were also loyal to al-Qaida who were somehow involved.

The question is, how did they get so close? And it’s not something that’s answered yet. But it appears that the explosions required some kind of inside information, if, in fact, they were placed within the minarets, as opposed to a rocket or something fired from outside.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do the Iraqi officials you talked to regard this just as the latest in this string of spectacular bombings that we’re seeing on the rise again? Or do they see it as a particularly ominous event in, say, political terms?

DAMIEN CAVE: They seem to feel that it was an ominous event, in the sense that they responded very quickly. I mean, within an hour, there were responses coming out from the prime minister, from some of the key clerics. So there seems to be a sense of anxiety about whether or not this will be an ominous, new chapter.

However, at this point, it’s still very hard to tell. And the reaction appears to be more muted than during the first attack of the Samarra shrine over a year ago.

Impact on political benchmarks

MARGARET WARNER: What impact, if any, do you think it's going to have, or do you sense it's going to have, on the already-stalled efforts on the part of the government to meet the political benchmarks that the U.S. and the Iraqi government agreed on many months ago?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, I mean, at this point, it's clear that this will probably complicate the government process. One of the more interesting statements that came out today was from Muqtada al-Sadr, and he criticized the government for allowing the shrine to be attacked and for not rebuilding it after the first assault on it last year.

So here you have someone who is a part of the government trying to distance himself from the government, which will make it only more difficult for the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds to come together and unify on complicated issues like oil, like sharing of revenue, like moving provincial elections forward some time this year. It appears that this will just be another complication in an already difficult process for them.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, Sadr, what, pulled his 30 parliamentarians out of parliament for now?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's true that he has pulled out his 30 members of parliament, at least for now, in an effort to protest. But what's actually really interesting here is that he's using this as an opportunity to criticize the government. Instead of blaming Sunnis, which is what his organization did after the first attack, this time his statement clearly blamed the government.

And in some towns, in Basra and in Hilla and in other areas, there were signs of members of the Mahdi Army, of the militia loyal to al-Sadr, protecting Sunni shrines from attack. So he seems to be playing a role of something of a peacemaker here or at least an effort to portray himself as more of a nationalist and to distance himself from this already-hobbled government.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you and the Times have reported this week on two high-profile visits from Americans, American officials to Prime Minister Maliki, one by Admiral Fallon, the top Mideast commander, and one by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. How tough a message did they deliver? And what was Maliki's response?

DAMIEN CAVE: The message seemed to be very stiff and very firm, that there needs to be progress as soon as this summer. Maliki's response was as it's been in the past, "Well, it's far too complicated. You don't understand. These groups cannot get together. I don't have as much power as you think I have."

This has been his response for a while. And, once again, it's what he repeated. Many Iraqis here feel that the Americans are overemphasizing Maliki and failing to understand the complexities of a system that's been hobbled, not just by lack of leadership, but also by violence, by a lot of mistrust, and by unfulfilled promises of previous compromises.

At this point, a lot of the Iraqi groups feel that it's better to wait and try and get everything they want, as opposed to compromising and maybe getting a little.

Battles at the provincial level

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying, in other words, that all three of these groups, the Kurds, the Shiites, and the Sunnis, don't actually have as their No. 1 aim the kind of compromise and reconciliation that the U.S. thinks should be the No. 1 aim, that they think they can get more by fighting?

DAMIEN CAVE: They do feel that way. They feel that they can wait out this game and possibly get more in the end. I mean, it's basically a bunch of guys in a room, in many cases, staring at each other and seeing who's going to blink first.

And at this point, many of them feel that they can outwait the next person. And at the same time, at the local level, they can try and get what they can outside of the central government's control.

I mean, one of the really interesting trends that's going on with the power structure here in Iraq is that it's decentralizing and disintegrating in some ways, with the most interesting battles happening at the provincial level, at the local level. The central government, for a lot of these people, in a lot of areas, in the streets of Baghdad even, is becoming increasingly irrelevant, so that, no matter what they sign, it's unclear if it will ever be enforced.

MARGARET WARNER: And the fact that U.S. troops are there preventing this violence from spinning out into total mayhem, does that give these divided parties a level of comfort that they can afford to wait it out?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's hard to see exactly what they feel the American role is. At many points here, it simply feels that things are kind of bouncing along in a difficult place. I mean, today there were at least 25 bodies found in Baghdad.

And for these groups, many of them have become somewhat numb to the violence and willing to accept at least this level of violence. The American troops, there have been some improvements in some places, lack of improvements in others. And in many cases, it often seems like, for the Iraqis, that the American troop presence is not as important as the battle that they're having with the group in the city that they're living in.

Growing frustration with Maliki

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, I know you said that some Iraqis think that the U.S. is putting too much emphasis on Maliki, but from U.S. officials you talk to, what is their reading now of Maliki, whether he has the ability or the will to deliver?

DAMIEN CAVE: Of the Americans that I've spoken to -- and it's far from everyone here -- there seems to be growing frustration at his inability to step forward, and to at least stop making excuses, and to do something. I mean, there is a divide over how much power he actually has.

Some Americans believe that he could be doing a lot more in terms of bringing people together, and others feel that he's simply too weak and that the way that the government is structured, he just simply doesn't have as much power or the ability to actually bring these groups together.

So there is some dispute over how much he can do, but there is still -- you know, at this point, this is the one that they're with, and they refuse to discuss the possibility of another leader, and they're trying to do everything they can to get him to perform as they feel he should.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Damien Cave of the New York Times, thank you so much.

DAMIEN CAVE: Thank you.