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Surge in Iraq Violence Underscores Fragile Situation

May 22, 2009 at 6:20 PM EST
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Four bombings over the last two days have killed at least 60 in Iraq, raising concerns as the June 30 deadline for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraqi cities approaches. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson reports from Baghdad.
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JIM LEHRER: New violence in Iraq. Margaret Warner talked earlier this evening with Campbell Robertson of the New York Times in Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Iraq saw a number of deadly bombings this week that killed more than 65, including three American soldiers. The new violence has raised concerns as the United States is pulling back its forces.

Under an agreement with the Iraqi government, all U.S. troops are supposed to be out of Iraqi cities by June 30th.

Joining us from Baghdad to discuss recent developments is Campbell Robertson of the New York Times.

And, Campbell, thank you for joining us. Put this week’s violence in some context for us, could you? How big an increase in violence have we seen in the last couple of months compared to, say, earlier in the year?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON, The New York Times: Well, April was the worst month of the year so far. But you have to remember that how much lower that is than what it was, say, a year ago. It’s still less than half of last April’s casualty count.

But it sort of fits a pattern that American and Iraqi officials had described, that the daily sort of drumbeat of violence that we saw in ’06 and ’07 would sort of go away or stay on a steady decline, while it would be interrupted or penetrated by these larger, more spectacular attacks.

That’s kind of what the security officials have been expecting, and it’s what seems to be happening here.

Largest attacks against Shiites

MARGARET WARNER: And what do the U.S. and Iraqi security officials -- or who do they think is behind them?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, it's hard to say. The targets have been all over the place. There have been some Awakening guys who were targeted. These are these Sunni groups who are fighting the insurgency. There's American forces, obviously, Iraqi security forces.

The largest attacks have been against Shiites in either Shiite neighborhoods or Shiite religious areas. So a lot of where the blame lies becomes a very political question.

Now, the minister of the interior, which is sort of the Homeland Security Department, in a way, recently said that there were foreign fighters involved. The government talks a lot about former regime guys. Some of the Sunni groups say it's fighting between the various Shiite political parties.

And it seems to be there's sort of a convergence of various events letting this happen. There is, one, the U.S. troops are leaving the cities by June 30th, and so some of these insurgent groups really want to make a statement that they're still alive and kicking, and perhaps even try to make it seem that they're kind of kicking the Americans out. That's a possibility. So that would explain some of the more jihadis.

Two, the government, the current government under Prime Minister Maliki, has really had some electoral success in running on a hard security platform. "We kept Iraq safe. We have made it a safe place." And there were a lot of groups that would really like to embarrass the government or prove them wrong.

On the other hand, for the government to have this position that they are secure, they've been taking down walls in Baghdad. They've been opening up roads in the Green Zone. And the fact is, several of the attacks have been in places where blast walls were only recently removed. So all these things kind of come together.

The pullback's influence

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do U.S. and Iraqi officials, are they concerned, then, about the U.S. troop pullback, that there is a direct link?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Well, I think they acknowledge that there is a link. I don't know that they would say this is proof that it's not going to work, though some might suspect that. But they do acknowledge that there's probably a link in the timing of these larger attacks, just with the deadline coming.

But it's also important to remember that this withdrawal from the cities has been a very, very gradual process. Some of these little bases and outposts have been shutting down over the course of months. Two of the biggest bases in Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul are going to remain, several bases in the cities. The Iraqi government agreed to exceptions here and there.

But definitely these smaller outposts that were sort of the cornerstone of the surge strategy, those are going or those are being handed over to Iraqis. So while there's concern, it's hard to say -- it's still too early to say what effect that's going to have on the security.

Murder case stirs anger

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, here in the states yesterday, as I'm sure you know, a jury in Kentucky, a hung jury spared the life of a U.S. soldier who'd been convicted of raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and some members of her family. What's been the reaction there?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: You know, we talked to some people from that town today, and they're very, very angry about his sentence. You know, as bad as this crime sounds to American ears -- it's obviously horrific -- it's even somehow worse here, because it goes to the heart of Iraqi values, the whole tribal system, and what is just for a crime like this with the Iraqi tribal society.

And, you know, a majority of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave. The U.S. redeemed itself somewhat in the last couple of years by providing security, by developing closer relationships, but there is still anger.

And not only does this kind of thing reinforce that anger, but even among people who may be a little bit more sympathetic, it sort of reinforces this idea that, at heart, the U.S. just doesn't understand Iraqi society, that they're just not compatible.

Many political questions remain

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, you've been there almost a year, and I'm sure you've talked to people who've been there a lot longer. Does it feel to them and to you as if things are getting better and better, that Iraq is really on the path to stability? Or is there some nervousness that things may be becoming a little unraveled?

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: The answer is yes to both. You know, you hear a lot -- like, there's no question that it's getting so much better compared to '06 and '07, when you'd have 2,000, 3,000 a month. But that's a pretty -- that's the soft bigotry of low expectations pretty much.

So now you're getting back to '03 levels, and I guess that's a victory. And it's certainly getting better and returning to some sense of normality, but, you know, '03 was there, and then it went on to become '04, and then '05, and then '06, obviously, worse and worse and worse.

So whether it's moving in a trajectory towards stability or this is a lull, yes, there's a lot of nervousness. I mean, there are a lot of political questions unanswered. But for now, you know, these periods of quiet, you have to take it day by day and say it's a good thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Campbell Robertson of the New York Times, thank you so much.

CAMPBELL ROBERTSON: Thank you.