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Violence Escalates in Iraq

September 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST


SPENCER MICHELS: The chants and banners in the streets of Basra made it clear: No to occupation and British aggression. This group was protesting Monday’s raid by British troops to free two undercover British soldiers who had been arrested and held by Iraqi forces for shooting local police.

DEMONSTRATOR: We demand that the two British terrorists should be handed over to the Iraqi authorities and ordered to be put on Iraqi trial.

SPENCER MICHELS: British troops decided to use force to free the two soldiers after fearing they had been transferred into the hands of militants. There are increasing concerns in southern Iraq that members of Shiite militias are also members of the new local police forces. The situation in Basra points to a broader fear that new Iraqi security forces have also been infiltrated by Sunni militants. Iraq’s national security advisor told the BBC yesterday, “our Iraqi security forces in general, I have to admit, that they have been penetrated by some of the insurgents.”

Basra is just one of many Iraqi cities to see a surge of violence in the past week. It began after the US launched an offensive against insurgents in the northern town of Tal Afar. The ten-day operation was led by Iraqi forces backed by US troops. In Washington yesterday, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said the insurgents were on the run.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The people of Tal Afar were liberated from the grip of insurgents and foreign extremists who had tried to turn the city into a base of planning operations and training. A number of insurgents were caught fleeing the city dressed in women’s clothing, hardly a sign of a confident group supported by the citizenry.

SPENCER MICHELS: But one week ago more than a dozen suicide bombs went off around Baghdad, killing 160 people and wounding more than 500, marking the bloodiest day in the capitol since the war began.

Al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility and said it was in response to the Tal Afar offensive. One day later a suicide car bomber drove himself into a convoy of police vehicles in the Dora District of Baghdad; 21 people died.

This weekend a remote-controlled car bomb tore apart this Shiite market on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, leaving more than 30 dead and scores more wounded.

WITNESS: I was here when the blast took place. I saw dead and injured people scattered on the ground. I saw a man whose head was blown up and cut into two halves.

SPENCER MICHELS: Americans have also fallen victim to the upsurge in violence. Yesterday in Mosul, four members of a diplomatic convoy were killed by a car bomb.

JIM LEHRER: And to two former US Middle East intelligence officials. Wayne White covered the region during his 30 years at the State Department, until earlier this year. He’s now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East institute. And Reuel Gerecht was a CIA Middle East officer from 1985 to 1994. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. First, the specific situation between the British and the police in Basra, how do you see that situation? What’s going on down there?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, it’s not clear. I mean, it appears the British had some type of operation that these two individuals were engaged in some type of either intelligence mission, and it went awry. I mean, we were talking about it earlier that apparently they got caught at checkpoints. They didn’t want to stop. And there was gunfire and they finally ended up being arrested. And obviously the British didn’t want to take the chance that these individuals would be hurt.

I think what you’re looking at now really is sort of the blow back, I think, in part from the British very light-handed management style down in Basra. It’s even lighter than the Americans have had in the North. And you also have competition now amongst these various Shiite militias, them trying to gain a position of power. It’s a fairly wide open town.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that? Is it an isolated thing just related directly to the situation with the British and the Iraqis in Basra or is it part of the total insurgent violent situation?

WAYNE WHITE: Well, I would agree that it’s more generalized, Jim. Throughout the Shia South, which has been more quiet than Sunni-Arab areas we’ve heard much more about or Baghdad which is….

JIM LEHRER: A lot of the recent violence has been right in Baghdad.

WAYNE WHITE: Exactly. In the South there are a lot of… there’s a lot of competition between militias. Much of the police in the South and in various towns is actually loyal to various militias. And I think one aspect of this that’s disturbing and confirms this is that the British probably don’t fully trust the police because of their connections.

JIM LEHRER: Well, do you agree that the British light touch has come back to hurt them a little bit? Should they have been tougher against these folks to begin with? They’ve been there two-and-a-half years now.

WAYNE WHITE: Exactly. It gets into the issue of militias. The British have been given a sector which is easier to occupy than areas further north. But what we’re finding out through this incident is that even Shia very deeply resent occupation and that there are tensions just below the surface even in the South.

The whole issue of militias here is critical. Throughout the country, militias have not been taken down as they were supposed to be, in part because security has been inadequate and they’ve been needed to supplement more regularized security. They’ve even been used unwisely, I believe, in some of our operations against Sunni-Arab strongholds in northwestern Iraq.

And when you use Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militia in those engagements, you’re basically fostering even greater tensions along ethnic sectarian lines.

JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that they take these incidents and they add them with other things and the strife over the constitution and other things and they look at the horizon and they see a civil war coming. What do you see when you look at the horizon?

REUEL GERECHT: I mean, I don’t think we’re at the civil war point. I don’t think we’re on the precipice. There are problems. I mean when you still look at Iraq what strikes me is actually how limited the revenge killings have been. You’re certainly seeing an increase but when you consider how enter mixed the Sunni and Shiite communities are particularly in the central lands and in Baghdad and you think about the violence that has been directed towards the Shiites, towards the Kurds and if you think about how….

JIM LEHRER: You mean in the history of violence.

REUEL GERECHT: In the sense… since the fall of Saddam Hussein and then also during Saddam’s rule, you would have thought particularly how important the light motif of revenge is in Iraqi society that you would have seen a lot more communal violence, sectarian strive.

You haven’t actually seen that. The center has more or less held, I think, in all three of the major communities. However, it is certainly true that the constant pounding that you’ve seen of the Shiite community by the Jihadists, the undiminished insurgency, I would disagree with Secretary Rumsfeld. I do not think we have the insurgents on the run. It is taking a toll. Something could crack. It’s possible. But we’re not there yet.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

WAYNE WHITE: Pretty much the same. I would like to add that a number of military commanders have said recently something very correct.

JIM LEHRER: US military commanders?

WAYNE WHITE: US military commanders, that the insurgency cannot be taken down militarily. It must… the solution must be political. And on a political front, we’re only moving forward in fits and starts and in some areas not at all. So that’s very, very distressing.

JIM LEHRER: But is the constitution and the political problems with the constitution and getting at the vote coming on Oct. 15, is that also motivating some of this new violence?

REUEL GERECHT: Perhaps. I mean, I would dissent a little bit. I think the American military sometimes is giving it an easy way out. I think much of the American military has not wanted to engage in a counterinsurgency campaign if for no other reason is we don’t have enough troops on the ground.

I don’t think — the notion that you’re going to get a political solution to the Sunni insurgency I think is a bit overstated. I don’t think it’s possible to have that political solution unless you have an active counterinsurgency campaign where the Americans actually try to occupy the ground and ensure that cities remain clean of insurgents. We haven’t seen that. So far the Pentagon has gone has shown no desire to go in that direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you….

WAYNE WHITE: I think that one of the main problems is that we do not have enough troops in country. As we’ve seen with Katrina, to go back to your lead story– and I hope I’m wrong, but maybe Rita as well– there’s a pressure to even pull troops out of Iraq with the constitutional referendum coming up.

Remember, the last election, we couldn’t secure parts of the country and large areas of the Sunni heartland couldn’t even vote. Now they were boycotting many of them so it didn’t matter maybe then. Now they want to vote, many of them. Will they be ale to vote? I’m not so sure. I don’t know whether we can secure a lot of the country for this upcoming referendum which will be very important.

JIM LEHRER: But the troop issues aside, just getting the Sunnis and the Shiites to agree that they have to agree eventually if they’re going to have a future together in this country, no closer to that?

REUEL GERECHT: It’s going to be very hard. One of the things that is obvious from the work up to the constitution is essentially the Shia and the Kurds decided to move on because they just couldn’t make their peace over the constitution draft with the Sunni Arabs. And one thing we have to keep in mind is that the Sunni Arab delegates were under pressures that others weren’t. They were under the pressure of being assassinated, you know, if they took back something that was less than something close to their maximalist demands.

JIM LEHRER: What do you see in the immediate future, more of this? There’s been a drum beat. We’ve reported it here night after night after night particularly the last couple of weeks. Is there more of this to come between now and Oct. 15, and then it will stop and there will be something else will happen? Do you have… what’s your crystal ball say?

REUEL GERECHT: I would say you’re going to continue to see a pretty high level of violence. I don’t foresee the Shiite community cracking and starting to shoot each other. There’s an enormous amount of animosity there. And if that were to happen –

JIM LEHRER: You mean within….

REUEL GERECHT: Within the groups. I mean, the three principal groups here, the followers of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr or the Mahdi Army, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, they all don’t really like each other very much. And there are differing reasons for that, some of them quite profound but I don’t see them going into a state of war with each other.

If that were to happen then Iraq I think is finished. But I think you’re going to continue to see the, certainly the insurgency continue. And until you see a change of tactics in the way we handle that insurgency, I don’t expect this to diminish.

JIM LEHRER: What about you? What do you see in the future, the immediate future?

WAYNE WHITE: I would agree. In the immediate future, more violence particularly in the lead up to the referendum which will interfere with the vote. And beyond that as we move on to a new government, we will also see surges of violence as the insurgents try to tear down what’s being built up. I would like to make a comment about intra-factional fighting in the Shia South and in the Kurdish North – that even once, if this works and we get some kind of federated system, we could then see a rise in in-fighting in the various regions.

The model for that is the 1996 breakdown which was total in the Kurdish North where the Talibani forces, the Popular Front of Kurdistan and Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party went at each other full bore, calling on Iranian and Iraqi support. This could happen again once a common enemy is removed.

JIM LEHRER: The common enemy and then they each want to flex their own muscles that they have newly acquired? Is that what you’re suggesting that could happen?

WAYNE WHITE: Yes. Exactly. Within their own areas once the national issue was settled one way or another and that could be failure or success. We could see a rise in infighting within the various regions even amongst Sunni Arabs between old Saddamists, you know, former regime elements and religious, you know, militants.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile the insurgency continues to grow in strength?

REUEL GERECHT: I don’t think it’s going to diminish. You’re not going to get a political quick fix to this. Not amongst the Sunnis. You’ve got to remember the political process is primarily there for the Shia community. It keeps the Shia community on course. It keeps the moderate elements in play. I think for the Sunni insurgency you’re going to have to have a much more aggressive counterinsurgency campaign. And that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon because Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to want it.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you both very much.