Explosion in Iraq Kills 9 People
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GWEN IFILL: Somini Sengupta, welcome back. First of all, give us an update on the security situation right now in and around Baghdad.
SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yeah. This morning, Gwen, there was a car bomb at the usual bombing hour just after 8:00, when people were just getting ready to go to work, when the streets were very crowded. Casualties are maximized at that hour.
A car bomb near a police station in the southwest corner of the city, a white tanker truck, apparently went in the direction of the police station, blasted away a whole row of car repair shops and tea stalls. At least nine people dead and a number of injured, about sixty people injured, though the death count might climb up still.
This follows last night the assassination of a senior defense ministry official. On Saturday, as you know, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt against the justice minister himself and last week, also the assassination of a provincial governor in Mosul just north of here.
So while the formal occupation of Iraq ended on June 28, the insurgency against the continued presence of 140,000 U.S.-led troops here continues, and it’s really picked up in the last few days, as we’ve seen the violence just go higher and higher.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about all these separate events, do we have any way of knowing whether they’re linked, whether the perpetrators are the same group of people?
SOMINI SENGUPTA: It’s very hard to know if they’re a part of one orchestrated, unified campaign. Certainly Zarqawi’s group, connected to al-Qaida, has taken responsibility for some things, but not all things.
As you know, at the same time there’s been this string of hostage-taking, foreign hostages, both those who are nationals of countries that are part of the U.S.-led coalition, like the Philippines, like Bulgaria, but also nationals of countries that have had nothing to do with the U.S.-led war, but men, usually men from countries that are very poor, men who are here from Egypt and Pakistan and so on, to try to make a living, to try to make a buck.
So tonight, we got news that the Egyptian hostage– he was a truck driver who worked for a Saudi company– he was released today. We are still awaiting word on the Filipino hostage. The last of the Filipino troops pulled out of Iraq today. They were a small contingent, about 51 troops, and they pulled out in response to the hostage takers.
GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister Allawi announced today, or today our time, that he would in fact reopen the newspaper that Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, had been running that had been closed by Paul Bremer because he said there was so much anti-U.S. sentiment in it. What is the significance, and how did that come about?
SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yeah, I mean, I think in that move you see the strategy that Allawi is trying to take to combat this insurgency, which appears to be a fairly fierce insurgency, on the one hand, announcing crackdown measures, strict emergency measures that would give him special powers, creating a new intelligence agency, but on the other hand trying to enter into political negotiations with his guerrilla enemies, and so announcing as he did yesterday that the Sadr newspaper would be allowed to resume publication was an attempt to bring him under the political tent.
And Sadr, for his part, has suggested, has dangled all kinds of suggestions that he wants to take part in the political mainstream, but hasn’t quite yet declared himself a player. So I think you’re seeing from Allawi a mixture of kind of carrot and stick, if you will.
He has also suggested that he will come up with an amnesty offer and give amnesty to some insurgents in exchange for laying down their arms. He has not yet come up with a formal proposal. There was some suggestion by his president, Sheik Ghazi, that that proposal would be announced last week, but it hasn’t been. So they seem to be a little stuck on that.
GWEN IFILL: Has there been any sense from Sadr, from the Sadr side of this equation, that he’s accepting of this new government?
SOMINI SENGUPTA: Well, he has made… he has made a series of rather mixed statements. He has continued to call this government illegitimate, and yet he has also said that he will cooperate with the Iraqi police, most critically in Najaf, which is the key Shiite city in the south, where I made a trip to about two weeks ago.
So there’s been kind of mixed suggestions, and certainly you haven’t seen the gun battles in Sadr’s strongholds that you did see about a month ago, gun battles between U.S. forces and Sadr’s militia, they’re called the Mahdi Army. Certainly that seems to have tempered.
There’s a truce that’s holding, Sadr’s forces seem to have lost a lot of their strength, according to the Americans. So we’ll see exactly how he responds to these various overtures that the Allawi government is making.
GWEN IFILL: And the U.S. role in Iraq has been very interesting over the last couple days. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has visited, the new U.S. Ambassador Negroponte has made his first public statement. So they both seem to be very intent in their public statements on keeping a low profile.
SOMINI SENGUPTA: Absolutely. That’s the message that the new U.S. Ambassador wants to send, that he is here as an ambassador to a sovereign country. He said, you know, this is not a super embassy; it’s an embassy, an important embassy. It should be pointed out that this is one of the biggest U.S. embassies anywhere, and that the U.S. embassy is still occupying the presidential palace, which is a very symbolic place here; it was the seat of power for the coalition forces for the U.S. occupation authority.
But I think the message has been very clear from the Americans that they are not going to be out front. The ambassador has not been appearing in press conferences, no television cameras were allowed in his Saturday meeting with journalists.
And similarly I think you also see U.S. forces on the ground, on the streets of Baghdad at least, just taking a step back. They are still doing raids, they are still leading missions here, but they are slightly in the background and in their place you see Iraqi police, Iraqi soldiers doing the checkpoints, helping on the raids, doing patrols.
And so as they are more and more on the front line, they’re also getting hit. So today the tanker truck, the car bomb, was heading straight in the direction of a police station. A few days ago, in a city that’s just south of here, there was an Iraqi national guard headquarters that was also hit by the insurgency. So they are being more and more targeted, both law enforcement authorities that are on the street as well as civilian government officials.
GWEN IFILL: Somini Sengupta, thank you so much.
SOMINI SENGUPTA: Thank you very much.