Transfer of Power
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GWEN IFILL: Two weeks have passed since Iraq’s interim government formally took the reins from the U.S.-led occupation authority. So how’s it going? For an update we turn to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post bureau chief in Baghdad. Rajiv, welcome.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you.
GWEN IFILL: It’s been two weeks, as I was saying, and it seems awfully quiet. But are appearances as deceiving?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: I think that’s the case here. You know, in these past two weeks, we haven’t had any of the spectacular car bomb type attacks as these big assaults against Iraqi or U.S. targets. But U.S. Military officials tell me that all is not really quiet, that the average number of daily attacks is still hovering around 40.
And that’s sort of where it was earlier in the month of June. And as the daily casualty reports come in, it still seems clear that the western province of Anbar, home to the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, still is incredibly active. There are almost daily reports of marine casualties out there. And certainly kidnappings continue apace. We’re still wondering what the fate of this poor Filipino truck driver, who was abducted, and his captors are saying now that unless the Philippine military withdraws by the 20th of July, he’ll be executed. So many of the same dynamics continue here.
GWEN IFILL: We have heard a lot about these kidnappings of foreign visitors, military people, contractors, we’ve heard less about what’s happening involving targeted kidnappings of Iraqis themselves, which you’ve written about before. Is that still going on?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there’s a healthy business going on here in kidnap-for-ransom among Iraqis. It certainly get a lot less prominence, and in most cases, the people who are kidnapped are released, generally after being held for a week, two weeks. They’re beaten up, they’re treated very badly, and a lot of ransom is paid here. That’s certainly a big component of the crime problem that both the U.S. Military and the new Iraqi security forces are trying to deal with here.
GWEN IFILL: Iyad Allawi, the new interim prime minister, has talked about the security situation, and about taking efforts to impose a sort of… almost martial law. Has that been imposed, is it as strict as it initially sounded, and how is it going?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, there was a lot of rhetoric last week when this was announced, a lot of tough talk, and that’s certainly been Prime Minister Allawi’s strategy here. He really wants to be seen as being Mr. Tough on terrorism, tough on the insurgency. But there hasn’t been a whole lot of tangible actions as yet.
He has not declared a state of emergency anywhere in the country. And even if he were to, it still remains unclear just what he would use to enforce it with. The Iraqi army still only has about 4,000 soldiers. The bulk of Iraq’s policemen still have not gone through any academy training. The National Guard forces are still largely under the control of various U.S. Military units around the country. So this seems to be more of a symbolic move, a move to project power and authority by the government, and perhaps having a little less sort of practical import.
GWEN IFILL: So when you see… when you go through the streets of Baghdad or around the country and you see the military patrols still on the streets, are they Iraqi military patrols? Are they still mostly Americans?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the one change that really has taken place is there are a lot more joint patrols. As I drive through the streets of Baghdad, I still see a healthy number of U.S. Military vehicles around, military convoys, other sorts of traffic. So for the ordinary Iraqi, there’s still a very obvious U.S. Military presence. But now most military units, when they go out on patrol, aren’t going out alone. They’re taking Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard units with them, trying to show the people of Baghdad and people in other parts of this country that there’s now a partnership.
But we haven’t yet moved to what U.S. officials hope will be sort of the final phase here, whereby the soldiers, American soldiers, are largely quartered in their bases, and much of the day-to-day work is relegated to the Iraqi police and the National Guard units, and the soldiers sort of function as a backup unit to be called in case of emergency. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, largely because the police and the National Guard still aren’t adequately trained, they’re not adequately equipped, many of them don’t have weapons, they don’t have flak vests, vehicles are still in short supply for the police. A lot of that has to be taken care of here in the next couple of months before they can be given additional responsibility.
GWEN IFILL: There has also been a proposal that’s been floating around to provide amnesty for some people in order to, I guess, help put down some of the insurgency. Where does that stand?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes, today I was actually interviewing the new president of Iraq, Ghazi Yawar, and he outlined his plan to me. What they envision– and they plan to announce this, he said, by the end of this week– is a very broad amnesty that would cover most Iraqis who have participated in the insurgency, so long as they are not accused, he said, of either rape or kidnapping or a murder in which there were actual witnesses present.
But that still leaves open a very broad swath of people who could qualify for this, and their effort here is really to sort of extend, as he put it, a carrot to people who have been participating in the insurgency. And he said if people don’t accept, then we’ll come down not just with a stick, but with a sword. And there is talk within the interim government to pretty quickly reinstate the death penalty. They want to be seen as moving very aggressively against the insurgents. Now, whether this will work is a big question. It’s not like the interim government has a very lengthy list of insurgents that it’s trying to capture, people who are sort of fugitives who now can sort of turn themselves in and be assured of their safety.
Just on the contrary, the security forces really don’t know who many of these people are. So again this may be far more symbolic. What the government is trying to do is trying to drive a wedge between the whole world of insurgents, trying to sort of lure back into the fold, if you will, Iraqis who have been picking up arms, people who have been fighting for more nationalistic reasons, and get them to sort of separate out from the Islamic extremists and the foreign terrorists, who they really want to focus their energies in combating.
GWEN IFILL: And speaking of these insurgents, what is the status right now of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric we’ve heard so much about in the weeks leading up to the handover?
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Sure, and he’s been surprisingly quiet these days. Now, there’s been a little bit of talk about is he really going to hold with his cease-fire. If you’ll remember in late June, he declared a cease-fire, and since then his militia men have not really been attacking U.S. forces, either in Baghdad or in some of those southern cities where they have concentrations of people.
And the new government here has really tried to take some advantage of this, and trying to make some discreet overtures to him. They see the solution here being a very different one from what the U.S. Military was trying to accomplish. Instead of killing or capturing him, they’d like to bring at least some of his supporters into the political process, figuring that the best way to deal with him really might be to co-opt him and to find a political accommodation here, instead of a confrontational posture that really characterized those months leading up to the handover of power.
GWEN IFILL: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you so much.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: A pleasure to talk to you, Gwen.