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Deadly Attacks in Iraq

October 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the latest violence in Iraq and how the U.S. should respond, we turn to retired Marine Col. and former Assistant Defense Secretary Bing West — he traveled with the Marines to Baghdad during the war, and wrote a book about it; retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a former Middle East intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency; and two Iraqi-Americans: Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio; and Feisal Istrabadi, vice president of the U.S.-based Iraqi Forum for Democracy. He served on a State Department advisory group on Iraq before the war, and is now advisor to a member of Iraq’s governing council. Welcome to you all, gentlemen. Colonel Lang, beginning with you, picking up on Dexter Filkins’ report, what does the nature of the attacks yesterday and today tell you about the insurgents?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I’ve been trying to follow the development of the military action in Iraq over the last few months, and it seems to me that the number of incidents is steadily building in number, and the complexity of the operations are becoming more and more impressive. The ones outside of town that involve attacks on convoys, things like this, involve both indirect fire and direct fire weapons, fairly elaborate scheme of maneuver in some cases in order to escape, they often do escape.

In this case, the attack yesterday on the Rashid Hotel, the device that was constructed, I think, is not something that an Islamic terrorist group from outside would build, it’s something that people with real military experience would put together I think in order to conduct that attack by fire, and it showed a good deal of planning. The other attacks are clearly things that an Islamic terrorist would do in the nature of suicidal attacks.

So I think you have an emerging collection of forces opposed to us that are moving onto bigger and bigger things. And as Dexter Filkins said, I think there certainly is some degree of collaboration to some extent because of the near simultaneity of all this, coinciding with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan in which groups like this, including semi-secular former Iraqi soldiers, would think it was a good thing to attack the unbeliever occupying an Arab country, so I think we’re moving along steadily.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel West, your view?

COL. BING WEST: Well, we’re moving more now toward what the Iraqis are going to do than the American soldiers, because the American soldiers are obviously a harder target, so they’re shifting whom they’re attacking, and that puts much more of a burden on the Iraqis and how the Iraqis are going to respond. And I noticed what Dexter Filkins said about how he was treated, and I think we’re getting into a period of peril here in terms of which way the population will tilt. Will it be angry at those who are killing them, or will they turn toward us and say you’re the cause of it and if you weren’t here it wouldn’t happen?

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Istrabadi, give us your assessment. Do you agree that it appears that there are two groups, with maybe slightly different motivations, but that they are coordinating at this point?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Yes. I find very little to disagree with what your previous speakers have said. I think that the members of the prior regime are unlikely to have committed suicide. They were certainly willing to engage in any barbarous act to kill as many Iraqis as needed in their view, but not to commit suicide, whereas the suicide bombers represent a very different phenomenon, something with which we’re very familiar in this country in light of Sept. 11.

So I think the evidence that there are two distinct groups, which however may be coordinating whether at what level I can’t say. But that is certainly a possibility that there is some degree of coordination between these groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, does this strike you, and I know you’re far away from the scene, but as just a bad day, or do you agree with Colonel Lang that this nature, this violence seems to be getting worse?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think that this possible coordination between the Islamists and the remnants of the Saddam regime is a very disturbing sign. The fact that it all happened within 45 minutes does suggest a very large degree of coordination. And that doesn’t auger well for the future. It’s interesting that they actually chose the first day of Ramadan to do this, because generally speaking Muslims don’t, they believe that violence is prohibited during Ramadan. The only group that actually perpetrates this are the Islamists or the Islamic militant groups because they think that a war against the enemies of Islam is legitimized even during Ramadan.

That’s what makes me believe that it’s absolutely certain that the groups who have used the suicide tactics are Islamists. But if there is a coordination between them and the remnants of Saddam regime, then at least in terms of the violence inside cities, inside Baghdad, that that is disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Istrabadi, pick up on something Colonel West mentioned which is the reaction among the Iraqi people. What kind of psychological impact do you think attacks like this have on the Iraqi people?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I think that the danger is that from the perspective of the Iraqis it’s going to look very much as though we may have had a brutal dictator ruling us six months ago, but we didn’t have car bombs blowing up in our streets, and in residential areas. That is what I’m concerned about. I think that Iraqis understand that they have been alone for a very long time, that is to say that the world was largely indifferent to their suffering over the 35 years that Saddam Hussein ruled them.

And it’s an open game as to which way the populous is going to turn. But we know that regardless of the brutality on a day-to-day basis there was not this sort of absolute sense, and I’m using my words very carefully, of lawlessness; that is something we must take very seriously and deal with immediately in order to foreclose the possibility that the population will in fact say we may have been ruled by a dictator, but bombs weren’t going off in our streets.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Lang, this is obviously also intended to have a psychological or political impact on the U.S.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I would say, and I’m a long time student of insurgencies of this kind and was, any number of them on various sides, and in a situation like this, the Iraqis who are structuring this effort, I think, seem to me to have a clear idea that the principal target in this case is the collective will of the American people and of the Congress, et cetera, to continue the struggle. And they are very aware of what the outcome was in Vietnam and Algeria is a thing which has particular significance to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Basically eventually the U.S. leaves?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, we and the French eventually departed from these places. So I think they know very clearly that if they can establish an image in the minds of the American people that this is a hopeless situation and that there is not, as the government says, a great majority of Iraqis that favors what we’re doing but exactly the opposite, then eventually Americans will quit and go home. This is essentially a psychological process that we’re involved in here, essentially a political process. So far they are moving along in that direction.

MARGARET WARNER: So Colonel West, what should the United States be doing about this? How do you combat this insurgency?

COL. BING WEST: If you notice that the weapon they’re using is simply a terror weapon. It’s not that they’re trying to stand and fight against us, they’re not going out there with rifles and engaging us. They’re using, as was pointed out by The New York Times reporter, they’re using these munitions and they’re putting them in cars. There are 2 million cars inside Baghdad.

So I think in terms of the tactics that are going to be turned against that, once you hit police stations once, you’re going to find the others are protected. But you have those soft targets like the Red Cross, and so as Pat was pointing out I think you’re into this issue, how much blood are they willing just to see running in the streets and which way does the Iraqi turn, and if the Iraqis turn against them, then it will become much more difficult to do. But if the Iraqis turn against us, it’s a different story.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask, before I get back to you, Colonel Lang, I’m sorry, Mr. Adeed Dawisha, forgive me — your opinion on how the Iraqis are likely to react.

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I actually share the same kind of arguments that have been said before. It’s very clear that the target has been Iraqi, have been Iraqi targets. Out of the 35 who were killed there was only one American. It was very clear that they were actually moving against the Iraqis basically to punish anyone whom they deem to have cooperated with the Americans.

I agree with Mr. Istrabadi when he said that this also kind of tends to show that there is far greater lawlessness today than there was before. After all, they are kind of trying to recreate images of the Saddam regime, what are they going to show? There was no political freedoms, there was no economic prosperity, the only thing that Saddam had been able to provide them was with security. People could go out in the street, they can walk by the river, they can go to restaurants. And if that is taken away from them, they might very well begin to blame the American presence on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Lang, back to you — what can the U.S. do?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: What can we do? I think this kind of struggle on the ground in Iraq can really only be fought by the Iraqis. We don’t have sufficient manpower to really deal with the many, many instances of this phenomenon around the country, which is outside the cities as well as inside the cities. So I think that the issue of getting the Iraqi military and security forces back up and running on our side, actually on their own side of this, is very important.

MARGARET WARNER: But the administration says they’re doing that. They’re training Iraqi police force. What more are you talking about?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think a very basic mistake was made at the beginning of all this, which I thought was not a good idea then, and many other people inside the government thought as well, which was to disband the existing Iraqi army. The kind of assumption was made that these people were people who were only loyal to Saddam, that they had no real integrity as soldiers.

In fact most of the Iraqi army officers were nationalists and they don’t want to see the country break up. And the suggestions have been made to have some carefully screened senior officers to bring their units back and have them fight for the new Iraq under American supervision locally, and I think they would do much better against this enemy than we can.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Istrabadi, do you think that’s the answer, get the Iraqi army back or large portions of it and operating?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: I absolutely agree with that. I think it was indeed a tremendous mistake made to disband the army, and many of us did say so. I think that you have to invest the people of Iraq in the process of rebuilding their own country. And the process of taking back law and order, of establishing security, must be Iraqi-ized, if I may use that term.

Let me also mention very quickly something else that the United States can do and that is to make it very clear that the United States is committed to at least the intermediate term and the long term for that matter of establishing a secure democratic and free Iraq. In other words, what Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are counting on is that the United States is going to bug out. We need to make it clear that that’s not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: So just briefly because I want to get to the other two, you’re not suggesting that the U.S. should leave right away, but you’re saying at least in the security area put an Iraqi face on this, really get the Iraqi army back?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Yes. I would use the, I would recall the Iraqi army and use it inside the cities. I would use the foreign troops to try to secure the borders. As I understand it, the one man that was caught came in through Syria; he may have been Yemeni, although The New York Times reporter said he was Syrian. In any event the foreign troops can secure the borders.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that strike you as a good plan, Colonel West?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I was just going to say I believe tonight that the government in Syria is sweating. If this man came from Syria and we have him alive, there will be consequences because of this. And I think we noticed that Ambassador Bremer had spoken about perhaps Iran meddling, and I think you’re going to see another point that the Americans can bring up, our government, is to put more pressure on Syria and Iran and say, hey, we’re going to hold you responsible if they’re coming across those borders.

MARGARET WARNER: But Professor Dawisha, back on the ground what do you think the U.S. should do?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I think they should continue with the good work that they’ve been doing. We tend to forget that there’s been a lot of positive developments going on in Iraq, and it may very well be that as a result of these positive developments, the attacks have been increasing in order to combat them.

There is a lot of things that have been happening in terms of the infrastructure. I think if the money goes through, the $20 billion, there would be even greater economic activity. There’s more money in Iraq, people are going out, the shops are open. People are staying out late. There was a lot of, let’s put it this way. Baghdad today compared to what it was two or three months ago, there’s been a lot of improvement.

If the Americans can continue with that, at the same time continue with the political developments that they’ve been kind of working on, for example, the constitutional committee, efforts to create a democratic system, working out the census, working out an electoral system, all of these things that they’ve been doing just continue to show that the Iraqis are serious about staying in Iraq and not leaving it until it’s democratic but also at the same time bringing some kind of a time line to convince the Iraqis that they’re not there basically to dominate the area, but there’s some period where they will leave after they have finished the job in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, gentlemen all, thank you.