Car Bombs Explode in Iraq, Killing At Least 26 People
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TERENCE SMITH: Edward Wong, welcome. What can you tell us about the situation in Baghdad and in Iraq today?
EDWARD WONG: Well, in Iraq, there were several car bombs that went off today which just adds to what seems to be almost an endless stream of car bombs coming from the insurgency.
Up in the northern city of Mosul which is rife with insurgents there was a car bomb that went off right near a military convoy. Instead of killing any of the soldiers in the convoy, it ended up killing three Iraqi civilians who happened to be in a car that was driving behind the convoy.
There were a few soldiers who were injured and they were taken to a military hospital over in the city. And then there was another car bomb attempt out west of Baghdad in the city of Ramadi, which is also an insurgent stronghold. Basically what happened there was another car bomb was trying to target the military and it ended up killing four Iraqis.
And soldiers and the insurgents started getting into a gun battle out there. And right now even as we’re talking down south of Baghdad maybe around 30 miles south or so there is a battle that has started in which the 24th Marine Expeditionary Force is trying to route some rebels in territory that they’ve been holding for a little while.
TERENCE SMITH: So these car bombs, do they seem to be, in fact, targeted against Iraqi security forces and other elements working with the U.S.?
EDWARD WONG: In general most of the car bombs, the deadliest ones have been aimed at the Iraqi police or Iraqi national guard. And the car bombs have taken the most casualties killing dozens or scores of people in one blow have been the ones that explode right outside recruiting centers in Iraq where lots of young men, hundreds sometimes, will line up just to try and get jobs with the new security forces.
That happened yesterday in Baghdad when there was a car bomb that exploded right near the fortified green zone and exploded at a recruitment center for what’s known as plain clothes police force here.
TERENCE SMITH: I gather that Prime Minister Allawi addressed the question of the security generally and the strengths and shortcomings of the security forces there.
EDWARD WONG: That’s right. Prime Minister Allawi appeared before the national assembly today. It was his first speech in front of the assembly. He was asked about the security situation. And here he was a lot more nuanced about it and a lot more sober about it than he was when he appeared before Washington, before lawmakers there and before reporters in Washington last month.
Now he’s saying that there are difficulties in standing up to police force that the police that the nation has right now are generally under equipped and that they don’t command a lot of respect right now from the public which is obviously necessary to maintain law and order.
So he’s hoping, he said, to buy heavy we weaponry from some of the neighboring Arab countries and Russia and the Ukraine and other countries to strengthen the Iraqi army and hopefully have the army help fight the insurgency.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile I gather that U.S. forces are starting to pull back, are they, from Samarra where they had such fighting over the weekend and here that’s being described as something of a success in the ongoing battle against the insurgents.
Do people there, do officials there see it that way?
EDWARD WONG: U.S. forces basically swept into Samarra with some Iraqi forces beside them. It took the city fairly quickly. Insurgents had basically overrun it and were controlling it and the Iraqi government had no effective presence there. Now it seems like after the weekend, a lot of the guerilla fighters have disappeared and the U.S. troops are starting to withdraw because they want to hand over security to Iraqi forces.
Now, you can say that the weekend battle was a victory but basically a long-term victory will depend on whether the Iraqi security forces are able to hold the city against the insurgents who will undoubtedly reappear in some form in the city, and basically until the Iraqi security forces can hold their own against insurgency, then the U.S. really won’t be able to realistically cede control of the security operations here to the Iraqis.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you have any sense of how long that would take and the progress that is or is not made in building up this Iraqi security force? I know that the prime minister referred today to the need for these heavier weapons. What’s the pattern here?
EDWARD WONG: So far the Iraqi security forces haven’t proven very effective against insurgency. And they haven’t fought in a big battle without the aid of American forces against guerillas and been successful. So right now it’s questionable. Samarra I think will be a good test case of whether or not they can stand up to the security forces.
The main thing that can’t be measured is how loyal they will be to the American forces or to the interim government. There have been a lot of cases where American soldiers might clear out of town, bring in a large number of policemen or Iraqi national guardsmen. But eventually those Iraqi guards or security officers get co-opted by the insurgency.
And even in the three weeks that I’ve returned to Iraq this time, I’ve met several police officers who have said that they don’t trust Americans and who would be willing to fight the Americans if that’s what it took to get the Americans to leave the country. So the question of loyalty to the interim government and to the government that follows that and to the American troops is a big one. That’s something that can’t be measured.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you have finally very briefly any sense of the dimension or intensity of this drive south of Baghdad that you mentioned earlier? Does this look like part of a concerted effort to begin to put pressure on the insurgents?
EDWARD WONG: I think it is. I think it’s… Samarra was basically the first leg of that. Now what you’re seeing is a second step. It’s not as big as operation as the one in Samarra because Samarra was a fairly large-sized city that was basically controlled by the insurgency. Here they’re going to smaller areas. The insurgency had never planted roots here in the same way that they had in Samarra but this area south of Baghdad is still one of the most violent places in Iraq.
TERENCE SMITH: Edward Wong of the New York Times, thank you very much.
EDWARD WONG: Great, thanks a lot.