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Targeting Iraqis

October 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Just since August, 135 people have been killed in car- bomb attacks in Iraq. And while Americans may have been the targets, most casualties have been Iraqis. Translators, police, and even a member of the new Iraqi governing council have been targeted as well.

The latest attack occurred Sunday at the Baghdad hotel, where seven were killed and as many as 40 others were hurt. Conducting an interview inside the hotel at the time was Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Middle East bureau chief of the “Washington Post.” He joins us now by telephone. Rajiv, welcome.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Nice to talk to you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So Rajiv, you were inside the hotel. Describe for us what happened from that vantage point.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I was in the process of conducting an interview with one of the members of Iraq’s new governing council. We were there talking about the process of writing a new constitution for Iraq, sort of high politics: How to get the countries disparate ethnic and religious groups to get along.

Halfway through our discussion, we heard and felt a tremendous blast. It shook the hotel. The window behind me blew in. The force of the explosion was strong enough to send both myself and the council member flying to the floor. He wound up hurting his arm in the fall. Frequently thereafter, security personnel came and hustled us into the hallway. There was a fear at that time that there might be a secondary explosion.

Nobody quite knew what it was. Was it an RPG that had hit… a rocket-propelled grenade that had hit the floor, or what? But it became pretty obvious a few seconds later that it was indeed a large car bomb in front.

I then made my way downstairs into the lobby, where I witnessed the scene of fairly horrific carnage — a number of very bloodied, wounded were being brought in, first aid being performed on them on the hotel lobby, covered in blood, managed to make my way out from there into the front of the hotel and could see a pretty devastating scene of other vehicles on fire, thick smoke, dozens of Iraqi and American security guards running around, and several dazed, bloodied, wounded people staggering about. It was a fairly large explosion that took place there, and had a few guards not had the presence of mind to have shot at the driver, the situation could have been much worse.

GWEN IFILL: I assume you yourself were not injured.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Fortunately, no. I got very lucky. And one of the things that I think had saved me from getting hurt was the fact that the American security company that is responsible for guarding that hotel had just recently put in an additional level of enhancement, including Mylar coating on the windows. While the window behind me broke, it broke into several pieces instead of hundreds of pieces, which was fortunate for me.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk to Iraqis and even to this member of the governing council who you were in the process of interviewing at the time, what do they say in response to these attacks? Do they feel less safe? Do they feel that they themselves are being targeted because of their cooperation with American forces?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Indeed. I think that there is a sort of universal feeling among those Iraqis who are now working with the U.S.-led occupation authority here, that they indeed are in the sights of all of the forced out there that don’t want this occupation to work– those include loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein, homegrown Islamic radicals and foreign fighters. And these days in Baghdad, and elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. Military has really fortified itself.

Their bases, their offices are run by large, thick, concrete barriers, other dirt-filled barricades, rows and rows of razor wire. It’s become very difficult for car bombers and other attackers to really cause significant damage to U.S. facilities. Institutions where Iraqis work are different, because the Iraqis, and aspiring Iraqi politicians, see a need to be out interacting with their fellow citizens.

They can’t wall themselves off in the way that the Americans have. So they become more natural targets. And as we’ve seen over the past month, things like Iraqi police stations, and now this Baghdad hotel, have become targets of choice for resistance fighters.

GWEN IFILL: And of course the one woman member of the Iraqi governing council who was shot and killed on her way to work. What do these folks do to protect themselves? Is there any way, or is it just the penalty of living in a war zone?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, all of the governing council members have had security details, some larger than others. Those who lead large political organizations, people like Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, have dozens of armed men and armed vehicles that are in their motorcade.

Others, like the woman who was shot who was a former Iraqi diplomat had almost no protection.Her brother was her only guard and they had one gun in the car. The Americans and the Iraqi governing council are now taking steps to increase that security.

I was just in the offices, the governing council today, and saw one member who didn’t used to have a very large security detail get into a suburban driven by two soldiers, and so I think that the Americans are taking a more active but behind-the-scenes role, because there are sensitivity issues involved here.

The council members don’t want to be seen as being surrounded by American soldiers or being prisoners to the American security forces. So they’re trying to find a mix here that makes it look like they are still independent and out there, but not exposed as they were.

GWEN IFILL: So Rajiv, does anyone have any reason to know what to suspect in these kinds of bombings?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Interestingly enough, unlike car bombs that occur elsewhere in the world, and particularly elsewhere in the Middle East, no group has publicly claimed responsibility for these attacks. Suspicion has focused upon Baathist loyalists and foreign fighters, perhaps people affiliated with the al-Qaida organization and other terrorist groups, although U.S. officials have not definitively stated who they believe are responsible for any of these. Some arrests have been made.

There were some reports today of a few people detained in connection with Sunday’s bombing at the Baghdad hotel. There have also been a few raids around the country, including one several weeks ago in the western city of Ramadi where a few people believed to have been involved in the United Nations compound bombing were detained. But at this point, it’s still looking like the investigations are in their early stages, and… at this point, there does not appear to be very clear leads for investigators.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you so much for joining us.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure to talk to you.