Violence Prompts Planned Troop Increase in Baghdad
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JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been a bloody few days in Iraq: 29 people kidnapped in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood; at least 23 ambushed and killed on a road outside the capital; shootings and bombings around the country.
According to an Iraqi ministry, the sectarian violence has forced some 20,000 people to flee their homes in just the last 10 days. In the meantime, the U.S. military reported the deaths of four Marines in combat in Anbar Province on Saturday.
We get an update on the situation by phone from Borzou Daragahi, Baghdad bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.
Borzou, the kidnappings today in Baghdad are part of what look more and more like very brazen attacks. What’s known about this one so far?
BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: It was just an awful incident in broad daylight. Gunmen in maybe 10 or 12 metallic-colored SUVs pulled up to a pair of office buildings in a very upscale section of Baghdad, carted off a few dozen people and left a few there, just because they couldn’t fit them into the cars to take them away.
They were in uniform. They had advanced weapons, according to witnesses. They were disciplined, calling each other by military title. It was quite an operation.
Layers of violence
JEFFREY BROWN: Does this constant swirl of attacks fit into any clear pattern that you can make out, in terms of the layers of violence occurring?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think it's really interesting. It's really hard to discern where the violence is coming from. It seems like there's multiple layers of violence.
There's the insurgent layer, which is the insurgent guerillas fighting against U.S. and Iraqi forces. There's the sectarian layer of violence, which is Shiite gangs fighting Sunni gangs. There's the tribal element to the violence that we're not quite sure of, but there seems to be this series of retribution based on tribal vendettas. There's the criminal layer of violence.
All these layers of violence are kind of piled on top of each other. We're not sure where one starts and the other begins; we just know that the bullets are flying everywhere.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote today, in fact, an article about that the interior minister, Jawad Bolani, has pledged to clean up the police force which itself has been seen as a cause behind the violence. Tell us about that.
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, according to a lot of people, a lot of Iraqis, according to U.S. officials, the ministry of interior has become to some extent a very sectarian institution, dominated by Shiites with ties to certain political parties.
These guys are out there using their badges to settle sectarian scores, often abducting groups of young Sunni Arab men in the middle of the night. Their bodies turn up a few days later with signs of torture and bullet holes to the head. And this has been going on now for more than a year, and it's quite destabilizing, because Sunnis react by creating their own militias.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this report I cited today about the growing number of displaced people, tell us about that. Who are they? What's happening to them? Where are they going?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think it might even be understating the issue here, in terms of the displacement. Basically every Iraqi I know seems to be touched by this issue. Either they're not sleeping where they normally sleep at night out of fear, or they're moving to a tribal relative's house out in the countryside, or they're moving from place to place out of fear, especially those who live in religiously-mixed areas.
They're very scared of what's going to happen to them at night. I know even some of our staffers, especially the young Sunni Arab men, sometimes prefer to stay here at night because they're afraid of what will happen to them if they're in their homes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you, in fact, able to move around? What's it like for you?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, you know, I've been moving around quite a bit, and I prided myself on moving around here to the extent that I can and beyond just going to the Green Zone.
But I've got to say, it seems like the noose is tightening and neighborhoods that I used to be able to go to I'm not able to go to any more. There are rolling checkpoints where people are asking for IDs, and you're not sure who they are.
And, you know, if they discover you're a foreigner, well, maybe they'll let you just go because you're not part of their sort of sectarian fight. On the other hand, maybe they'll kidnap you and hold you for ransom. So it's become really tough.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I mentioned that four Marines were reported killed this weekend in the fighting in Anbar Province. What do you know about the circumstances of that fighting there?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: I mean, that's been going on for years now. That's the classic insurgency between the Sunni Arab, what they call the resistance, what the U.S. calls the terrorists or the insurgents. They've been waging a guerrilla war against U.S. troops. And, you know, oftentimes they use roadside bombs and small arms to devastating effect. That's a real hot war out there.
Timeline for increase in troops
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as you know, last week President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki announced a plan to bring thousands of troops from outside of Baghdad into the capital. Have you seen any signs of that? Do you know anything about a timetable at this point?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: We're not sure. We know that the 172nd Striker Brigade, the Alaska-based unit, is scheduled to come here and add to the security presence here. We're not sure what that will mean.
In the past, when U.S. soldiers have been moved around and when security has been concentrated in one area, the insurgents and the militias, they're not stupid. They move onto another area where the security forces more or less are not so robust.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that's the brigade -- I believe it was just announced that their tour would be extended for up to four months. Does this suggest to you that the overall troop levels are on the rise now?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: I'm not sure if they're on the rise, but it definitely does look dismal for a withdrawal this year. The U.S. has always said that a withdrawal of troops would be conditions-based.
It's definitely apparent to everyone that in Baghdad, in Basra, in Kirkuk, in Mosul, and in Anbar, security conditions are not improving. There's really no reason to have optimism for a troop withdrawal.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Borzou, what's been the reaction in Iraq to what's now going on in Lebanon?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think they're very upset by the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. Lebanon has a Shiite plurality that a lot of the Iraqi Shiites identify with.
I think also, though, it's beginning to complicate some U.S. plans. I think the Shiites' political and religious leaders are using what's happening in Lebanon to build up support for a few anti-American policies.
That includes the policy of the Americans want to disarm the militias. The Shiites are trying to use what's happening in Lebanon not to let them disarm the militias. That includes reinforcing security in certain parts of the country. The Shiites are trying to use what's happening in Lebanon not to let the Americans take further control of security.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, thanks very much again.
BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.