JIM LEHRER: Two terrible bombings in Iraq. We get the story from Stephen Farrell of The New York Times in Baghdad. Margaret Warner talked with him earlier this evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Farrell, thank you for being with us. What can you tell us about these two deadly suicide bombings today at the Baghdad pet markets? How did they unfold?
STEPHEN FARRELL, New York Times: Well, what Iraqi witnesses told us today was that two women went to two separate pet markets, both pretty much in the center of Baghdad. One blew herself up at the Ghazil market, beside the River Tigris.
And then, as word of that was filtering through to another pet market nearby, and as they were all beginning to say “What should we do about this?” and beginning to think about leaving, before they could do anything, another woman turned up there and blew herself up.
So we have a death toll of more than 60, according to initial reports, and that makes it the bloodiest day in Baghdad for almost exactly six months.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Stephen, the Iraqi authorities were saying that these two women were mentally disabled or retarded and that their explosive vests were detonated remotely. What are they basing that on? And were you able to confirm that?
STEPHEN FARRELL: We have heard these reports. They haven’t presented any direct evidence of that, it has to be said.
What one senior Iraqi policeman we spoke to said was that, judging from the head of one of the women at the Ghazil market, she appeared to be suffering from Down syndrome.
Certainly, two members of our staff went there and said it was impossible to say, just judging from the head of a woman who’s obviously suffered severe trauma, in that her head has been blown off her body, was or wasn’t mentally impaired.
We actually did speak to an Iraqi witness at the larger market who said that, minutes before the blast, he saw that woman, apparently in normal fashion, walking down the road, holding a child by the hand, looking back over her shoulder, and then he lost sight of her, but she was behaving normally, and that he later recognized the head on the ground as that woman he saw.
Assessing security measures
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what was security like at these markets? How did these women get in?
STEPHEN FARRELL: They appear to have walked in. They appear to have walked in wearing voluminous clothes so that nobody could see what they were carrying underneath those garments.
What we know is that at the Ghazil market where there's been a number of previous bombings, there high blast walls, there are Iraqi checkpoints, and they do search, but crucially they search men, which is what they told us today.
At the other market in New Baghdad, about four miles away, when I went there today, there are no blast walls. The shopkeepers there have complained for a long time about this. There is an Iraqi security presence. There is some razor wire, but no blast walls.
So different levels of security, but these women managed to get past both those security arrangements and did what they set out to do.
Yielding maximum impact
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Ghazil market has been hit several times, including most recently in November. What makes it a particularly attractive target among all the markets in Baghdad?
STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, I went to Ghazil market on both occasions, actually. And today's bomb happened at exactly the same spot as the bomb on Nov. 23.
It is a place where they can hit people of all denominations, Sunni, Shia, Christian. Everyone goes there. It's also a place, unusually now in Baghdad, where you get very large, very densely packed crowds.
As one stall-holder will bring in a box of exotic scorpions or brightly colored birds, you will get a lot of people crowding around. And so a suicide vest-wearing bomber in a place like that can kill dozens of people, whereas if they were in a normal park or in a normal area of town, the death toll would probably be around about half a dozen, maybe a dozen.
The bombers seem to be unable to get cars and trucks into these places now, so they have to rely on these rare places where there are very dense crowds.
Higher death tolls
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you said, this is the deadliest such bombing in months. And in addition, U.S. casualties are up this month as compared to December. Do U.S. and Iraqi commanders think violence, in fact, is on a slight uptick again in Baghdad? Or do they think this is an anomaly?
STEPHEN FARRELL: Well, we spoke to one American commander who's actually in charge of the North, which is one of the most violent remaining areas. And he said, look, we are carrying out more operations. We're going after them. So, of course, you're going to see more casualties.
This has been a pattern in previous years, that casualties obviously go up as you are hitting large areas like Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba, central Baghdad.
Measuring Baghdad's safety
MARGARET WARNER: And do you see evidence that, in general, Baghdad residents have been feeling a lot safer? And is it too soon to know what impact today's bombings will have on that? Do you get a sense of it?
STEPHEN FARRELL: Yes, I think, anecdotally and statistically, you would have to say that certainly in the center of Baghdad everyone feels a lot safer. At bombings scenes I've been to recently, you know, one or two people would say, "Oh, security is terrible."
I mean, that criticism is there. And others would jump in and say, "Look, remember what it was like a year ago, two years ago? Don't get carried away about this."
I think what you would have to say about the significance of today's bombings is that people will take from them what they want to take. If you believe that this indicates that al-Qaida, other insurgents can slip past the security net and do what they want to do, that's the message you will take away from today's bombings.
If you are a believer that, in fact, the security forces have tightened up, that this shows that bombers can't get trucks and vehicles through quite so easily as they were able to in the past, and now have to resort to people wearing vests, than that's the message you'll take away from today.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, thank you so much for being with us.
STEPHEN FARRELL: You're welcome.
JIM LEHRER: The death toll in the bombings rose to more than 90 after Margaret taped that interview.