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Violence Escalates Amidst Reconciliation Efforts By Iraqi Premier

October 18, 2006 at 10:55 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. The last 24 hours have been among the bloodiest for American forces since the fall of Baghdad. How have these 11 deaths occurred?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: Well, they’ve occurred in six different combat incidents around the country, most of them in Baghdad, in various parts of Baghdad. Most of them have been roadside bomb attacks. There have been a few sniper attacks, small-arms fire. Some of the attacks are not described in detail by the U.S. military; they don’t disclose that information for security reasons.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the last couple of days also been dangerous ones for Iraqi civilians?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s just been a constant simmer of sectarian violence, roadside bombs and car bombs targeting security patrols, but often killing Iraqi civilians, as well. Today we counted at least 35 bodies gathered up, victims of sectarian death squads.

Muqtada al-Sadr

Muqtada al-Sadr

RAY SUAREZ: American forces arrested an aide to the cleric and faction leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Who is he, and why did they pick him up?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: This is a cleric who is a leader in Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. There's no information that I know of as to why they picked him up. Presumably, he was allegedly involved in overseeing the efforts of the Mahdi Army, which is Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia, which has been implicated and accused of involvement in those sectarian death squad killings.

RAY SUAREZ: And he's now been released? Did anybody say why?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: There's been very little information that we've been able to gather on that. Under pressure from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he asked the Americans to release this gentleman, and he was released.

RAY SUAREZ: Prime Minister Maliki has also met with Muqtada al-Sadr himself, hasn't he?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Mr. Sadr is an important component of Maliki's coalition. That's one of the most interesting parts of the whole Shiite-led government here. It is very much supported by the same groups that are allegedly involved in these death squad killings that are destabilizing the country.

I'm sure they had a lot to talk about. I'm sure that Maliki is under pressure by the U.S. to crack down on those militias. Muqtada has some sway over those militias. They have a lot to deal with, with regard to sorting out future security issues and trying to get, for example, Muqtada to get the Mahdi Army to tone down its activities.

Prime Minister Maliki's government

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
But as supporters of the government point out, the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world, and it's unable to stem the bloodshed. What makes them think that this weak, new government can do much?

RAY SUAREZ: Recently, the prime minister has complained that the Americans have been putting an undue amount of pressure on him. What are they asking him to do? And how is that affecting his standing amongst his own countrymen?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think his standing among Iraqis has been seriously eroded just by the lack of security and a lack of any improvement in public services. So his government is definitely losing support and losing credibility.

With regard to the pressure that he's under from the U.S., the U.S. would like him to crack down further on these militias and hem in some of the sectarian violence that's breaking out. But as supporters of the government point out, the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world, and it's unable to stem the bloodshed. What makes them think that this weak, new government can do much?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, has the prime minister said anything about when he'll be able to disarm those militias?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I mean, I think it's a bit of a catch-22 there. And in a certain respect, he is supported by those militias. He's not very much -- he's not really able to take any decisive measures about them without risking alienating his own waning supporters. So he's very much in a politically compromising situation.

National reconciliation conference

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
No one in the government, especially not Prime Minister Maliki, can make any decisive moves without the risk of alienating another one of his coalition partners.

RAY SUAREZ: There had been a proposal for something called a national reconciliation conference. A meeting was postponed, then rescheduled for November. Can you tell us more about that?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, according to the folks that are organizing this much-ballyhooed conference, they rescheduled because of a technicality, because of unstated, quote, "emergency reasons," unquote.

But even the people who are organizing this conference, they acknowledge that, in fact, Iraq is not moving in the direction of reconciliation and dialogue. It's moving away from that direction, and the various political, and ethic, and sectarian factions are not talking about dialogue or compromise. They're talking about trying to defend themselves, and they use very heated rhetoric. So the country is really not moving in that direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it a sign of the weakness of the elected government that it itself has not considered a national reconciliation conference? It brings together all the main interest groups in Iraq.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, actually, that national unity government is one of the things that keeps the government here so weak, because no one in the government, especially not Prime Minister Maliki, can make any decisive moves without the risk of alienating another one of his coalition partners.

In addition, you have these three sprawling coalitions -- the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis -- each one of them have to have these big meetings and figure out what they want to do on an issue before they go to the table with the others and try to figure out what the whole government wants to do on an issue. So it's a very slow-moving, very complicated process every step of the way.

Reassurance from the United States

RAY SUAREZ: Has the Iraqi government gotten the reassurance it was looking for from the United States? And is it a mixed blessing for Maliki, who's trying to firm his own support domestically to get support publicly from the U.S. administration?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I think it is a mixed blessing. I think if you looked at the chronology of events, it was Bush calling Maliki to tell him not to worry, and then Bush's people leaking word of this phone conversation. I think that does put, again, Maliki in a hard situation. A lot of Islamists within his coalition donâ??t want him to have such great relations with the U.S. They think he's too close to the Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi from the Los Angeles Times joined us from Baghdad. Thanks a lot, Borzou.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.