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Renewed Violence in Iraq as Election Nears

December 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Robert Worth of the New York Times, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

When we look at these bloody attacks of the last three or four days, is it fair to say that the insurgents seemed to have sharpened their focus when it comes to targeting?

ROBERT WORTH: One of the things they’re doing is striking at Iraqi police and National Guard and Army units, which is something they’ve been doing for a long time. They also… yesterday there was a really bloody attack where a bunch of civilians were killed.

And again that is something they’ve done for a long time, but it’s sort of a renewed focus just lately. What’s troubling also is that recently they’ve been striking at… on Friday we had an attack on a Shiite mosque, and then on Saturday there was an attack on a busload of Kurdish militiamen.

It seems like they’re literally trying to foment ethnic and sectarian violence here, probably to destabilize the country as the elections approach. That’s what is new.

MARGARET WARNER: And who do the military commanders think now is behind this insurgency?

This is an old question, I know, but mostly foreign fighters, or do they think there are really a lot of Sunni Arabs, former Baathists, who are behind this?

ROBERT WORTH: There are a lot of… they think there are a lot of former Baathists behind it. In north Babil Province, which is south of Baghdad, they’re finding all kinds of sort of former Baathists, which is a central area for resistance down there.

So certainly that’s a big part of what’s going on. But as it always has been, it’s been a mix.

MARGARET WARNER: How are the… let’s go into the sectarian violence. How are the Shiites as a community responding to these attacks?

ROBERT WORTH: We’ve heard a little bit more concern lately, just because it’s gotten worse. South of Baghdad, again in that north Babil area, there has been over the past couple of months, a lot of attacks.

Mostly individual attacks on religious pilgrims who were heading south of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. And there’s some extremist Sunnis in that area who have been carrying out killings.

This has gotten to the point where Shiites down south have gotten really, really furious about this and they’ve formed something called the “anger brigade,” which are religious Shiites who have come up well armed now and the purpose of the brigade is to strike back at these extremist Sunnis.

So there’s obviously a lot of tension in that particular area. And there’s just sort of a growing sense that conflict is now more open than it has been in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: Sitting here reading about all these different incidents, it appears the insurgents can just attack at will.

What is the U.S. military doing or able to do to foil these attacks, and are there lots of times where the attacks are foiled and we’re just not hearing about it?

ROBERT WORTH: Oh, yeah. There are lots of times. I mean, they’ve certainly… they’re doing aggressive sweeps now and they’re actually detaining a lot of people.

There’s a big operation still happening, I believe, in Babil Province, which is south of Baghdad. In Mosul for several weeks now, there’s been an aggressive campaign up there to root out insurgents.

So there’s no question that they’re being more active now than they have been in the past. I believe that’s because they’re, again, trying very hard to pacify the country as we head towards the election.

That was what Fallujah was about. And there’s an effort, I think, there’s sort of a classic counterinsurgency doctrine is to strike all at once rather than doing it sequentially.

If you do it sequentially, the enemy can always sort of, you know, sneak out to another area and escape.

Nonetheless, as you see, the insurgents have made it pretty clear that they still have the power to strike pretty much at will virtually anywhere in the country.

There’s some sense that they’re deliberately trying to ramp this up as we approach the election, it’s to sort of send a message.

The insurgents want to tell ordinary Iraqis “don’t participate with the American project in any way. Don’t go out and join the police. Don’t work for the Americans.”

And ultimately the message they’re certainly going to try to send is “don’t vote,” because this is all an American plan. Beyond that it’s difficult to say what’s motivating them.

MARGARET WARNER: What impact is this having on this sort of ongoing debate about whether to delay the Jan. 30 elections?

ROBERT WORTH: Yeah, well, certainly that plays into it. On Sunday, there was a political conference here by a group of political parties, mostly Sunni parties, who were adding their voices to the calls for a delay.

The violence is worse here and tends to be worse in Sunni-dominated areas because the insurgents are mostly Sunnis.

So this means that ordinary people in those areas are going to be, you know, the most intimidated, which could mean that the Sunnis, who are already a minority in this country, could have less turnout and therefore be, you know, seriously underrepresented in the national assembly after the vote takes place.

This is one of the things that the attendees at this conference were saying, that you are going to have a seriously illegitimate result. The Shiites have made clear that they really insist that this go forward.

So it’s hard to tell how much more violence might change that, but certainly the insurgents are going to push it as hard as they can.

MARGARET WARNER: Robert Worth, thanks so much.

ROBERT WORTH: Okay, thank you.