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Series of Car Bombs Rips Through Eastern Baghdad

November 23, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Our Iraq story comes from John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief of the New York Times. I talked with him earlier this evening.

John Burns, welcome. People have gotten used to seeing daily reports on the news of terrible death in Baghdad, but was this attack different in its coordination, in its lethality, and, if you’ll excuse the expression, in its ambitions?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: You know, it’s difficult to make any calibration any longer of these things. We’ve seen this kind of vicious, determined, murderous attack so often, but what is different this time, I think, is the timing of it.

It comes at a really critical stage of this war, as you know. The time seems to be running out politically in the United States. The president is going to meet Mr. Maliki, the prime minister, in Oman on Tuesday. And this attack today, one of the worst, close to the worst, that has occurred in Baghdad in the three-and-a-half years of the war.

Of course, it simply reignites this cycle of attack and revenge, which now seems to be in the foreseeable future unstoppable.

Timing of the attack

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about the timing. What is it meant to accomplish, a very lethal attack against a large number of Shias in Baghdad at this critical time. What's the message?

JOHN BURNS: This is a struggle to the death, I mean, literally, for political and economic power in Iraq, in which the American forces become evermore bystanders. I mean, literally today, the American forces were not there; they weren't even close.

Hours after the attacks, the Americans were still scrambling to get accurate figures of what had happened, why. First of all, the Iraqi government doesn't want them in Sadr City. The Mahdi Army that controls Sadr City doesn't want them there. So there's very little that they can do to control this kind of thing.

As for the motive behind the attack -- presuming that the prime minister, Mr. Maliki, is correct, as it certainly seems likely to be, that these were Sunni assailants who set off these bombs -- the purpose is to drive the country into civil war, in which the Sunni extremists calculate that they would have at least an even chance of winning.

They cannot win on the battlefield of politics; at least they can't win outright, because they are a minority of 20 percent. They can't impose a Taliban-like Islamic republic on Iraq in the face of public opinion that seems to prevail strongly against that.

So their best option, the extremists, the Sunni extremists, the Al Qaeda-aligned extremists, who seem most likely to have been the perpetrators of this, is to drive the country into civil war, to make the American forces here irrelevant, and to settle affairs, if you will, on the field of carnage.

Shiite response

RAY SUAREZ: After today's terrible attacks in the Sadr City neighborhoods, how did the Shias respond? Did they fight back?

JOHN BURNS: Well, they did. Very quickly after these car bombs, a battery of mortars were fired from the direction of Sadr City, which is northeast of where I stand here, about three miles. It's on the northeastern perimeter of the city.

And we've seen this pattern now several times in the last few weeks. And mortars are fired with some accuracy from Sadr City westward towards the Sunni district of Ahdimaya or from the east side of the Tigris River, a densely packed urban neighborhood.

As of now, we don't know exactly what the death toll in those mortar strikes was, almost certainly not as severe as the 150 or so we believe to have been killed by the bombings in Sadr City. But what we can well expect -- because we've seen it many times before -- is a calibrated cycle of revenge here, where the Sunnis strike with what the American forces describe as sensational or spectacular attacks; that's to say, bombings, sometimes suicide bombings, sometimes car bombings, as the kind we've seen today.

The Shiites respond with calculated strikes against Sunni civilians, murders and executions, which evermore seem to be calibrated on a kind of death-for-a-death basis. It looks now as though each side is killing roughly as many as of the other side. So it's a proportional cycle of revenge.

What can be done to stop this? I think, to be honest with you, nobody knows. We've heard tonight political leaders in Baghdad, from all of the principal communities -- that's to say, the prime minister, a Shiite, the president, a Kurd, Tariq Al-Hashimi, a vice president who is a Sunni, gathering together to issue appeals for calm.

We've heard Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the principal Shiite cleric in the country, from his readout in Najaf, 85 or 90 miles southwest of here, the holy city of Najaf, issuing a call once again for restraint from Shiites. But Ayatollah Sistani, who was so successful for roughly the first three years of this war, in constraining Shiite revenge attacks on Sunnis, doesn't any longer seem to be able to constrain those attacks. And so I imagine that we're going to see a repetition of this ghastly cycle.

Baghdad curfew

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the international airport was shut down. A curfew has been put into place. Would shutting down Baghdad for a time at least bring a pause in this terrible cycle of violence?

JOHN BURNS: Well, we've seen recurrence 24-, 36-, 48-hour curfews, and there's no doubt that that tamps the violence down. But you can't keep a city of 6.5 million people under curfew indefinitely.

People have to eat. To eat, they have to work, they have to earn money. It's just not a realistic option.

Ironically, the one thing that did seem to tamp down violence in Sadr City, in particular, these kinds of attacks, was when the U.S. military, the Army, with the Iraqi forces, two or three weeks ago did put a tight cordon around Sadr City.

At the time, they were looking for an American soldier, still missing, and a Shiite death squad leader. And they had a fairly immediate and measurable impact, which amongst the people of Sadr City, Shiites, was very welcome. They welcomed for the first time in probably a long time the presence of American forces on the periphery of Sadr City.

But Prime Minister Maliki, for political reasons, demanded that that cordon be lifted, and it was lifted, and the cycle of revenge began again.

Civilian deaths on the rise

RAY SUAREZ: John, three of the worst months for civilians since the invasion -- July, September, October -- have happened in a cluster now. And all during these months we've been told that the number of Iraqis trained and in uniform has been rising. How come one has not been able to address the other?

JOHN BURNS: The attrition rate amongst the 320,000 or so trained and equipped Iraqis in the police, the national police, the border police, and the army is very high. We know that. There's been a substantial amount of killing.

There's a substantial desertion rate at any one time. One-third of all of them are absent, going home with their pay pack. It's because there's no effective banking system here.

And many of these units turn out to be heavily sectarian. Why? Because, in the main, they are constructed of Shiite enlisted men. There is a substantial representation of the Sunnis in the officer corps. But what the Americans find in the army and the Iraqi forces, as they find in the government, is an absence of a reliable partner.

Of course, great efforts are being made to correct this, but the Iraqi army is not yet -- except here and there -- an effective partner for the United States' military in trying to tamp all of this down.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns of the New York Times from Baghdad. John, thanks for talking to us.