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Attacks Spur Reprisal Killings in Baghdad

November 24, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It was the single deadliest attack by Iraqis on other Iraqis since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Yesterday, suspected Sunni militants staged a well-coordinated string of bombings across the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.

At least five car bombs detonated in crowded marketplaces and busy intersections 15 minutes apart. More than 200 Iraqis were killed, hundreds more wounded.

The reprisals quickly followed, as Shiites lashed out, attacking the most popular Sunni mosque in Baghdad with mortar rounds. Iraq’s top leaders met last night and issued a televised appeal for calm.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): I hope that all political and popular forces will come together to protect the people and all people from the violence of the criminals. I also ask the security forces to guard the people to prevent the deterioration of the situation and stop this sectarian unrest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the bereaved buried their dead, while across Baghdad the counterattacks mounted, leaving dozens more dead, despite a curfew imposed by the national government.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr today blamed U.S. forces for not securing the city. His political loyalists in the parliament threatened to leave the coalition government if Iraq’s prime minister goes ahead with a planned meeting with President Bush next week in Jordan.

There were also reports today of U.S. forces exchanging fire with Iraqis in Sadr City. One officer said this of the difficulty of the U.S. task.

1ST LT. CHARLES MORTON, U.S. Army: If you’re helping the Sunni, then the Shia think you’re out to kill Shias.

JEFFREY BROWN: The latest violence follows a U.N. report this week that Iraq has suffered the highest monthly total of civilian casualties since 2003. More than 3,700 Iraqis were killed in October, 400 more than the month before.

Motivation for the violence

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, some analysis of these particularly turbulent past two days. For that, we're joined by Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief for the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, and for LBC, a Lebanese Arab satellite channel. He's a Jordanian citizen.

And Mark Levine, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California at Irvine.

And welcome to both of you.

Professor Levine, starting with you, with this new escalation of violence, how would you define the point we've reached in Iraq?

MARK LEVINE, University of California, Irvine: Well, I think Iraq really represents the first globalized civil war. You know, previously, you could have countries that would have a strong state and a weak society, like Iraq under Saddam, or a weak state but a strong, cohesive national identity.

Today, you have a weak, ineffectual state and a society that has literally been shattered, and there's very little unity left. And that's what's making Iraq so difficult to put back together, so difficult to bring the parties together, and what's making any kind of comparison we can draw between Iraq and, let's say, Vietnam, you know, facile and quite inaccurate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Nematt, how do you see what's going on? Who's driving it now, and with what motivations?

SALAMEH NEMATT, Al-Hayat Newspaper: Well, to begin with, I don't agree that these hatreds of -- you know, and splits within the Iraqi society just took place after the Iraq war, the 2003 war.

I think that, for the past several decades, the former regime of Saddam Hussein has basically been responsible mainly for these divisions within society: 300,000 people were found in mass graves after the fall of his regime. And what happened is that, by removing Saddam Hussein, we have removed the lid over all these problems.

There used to be this centralized, very, very oppressive regime that kept things under wraps, such as when Tito was ruling Yugoslavia. When Tito died, Yugoslavia was splintered. Yugoslavia became the former Yugoslavia. And you've got the Bosnians, and the Serbs, and the different groups basically fighting each other, until finally there was another war to finish the job, the war of Kosovo, which was led by the U.S. under Clinton.

So I think what we have in Iraq now is something that was inevitable. Whether the U.S. intervened or not, we were going to have this once the strongman of Iraq is down, which used to be Saddam Hussein. The question is: Where do we go from here? And I think this is the more important question at this stage.

Violence is on 'fundamental level'

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Levine, follow up on that. First of all, how coordinated is the violence at this point?

MARK LEVINE: Well, I don't think it's coordinated on a national level. In fact, you have, even within the various sectarian divisions, in the north, near the Syrian border, you have Baathist Sunnis fighting Salafi Sunnis. You have the Mahdi Army disobeying, you know, a direct order from the Shia government. You have Sciri and Dawa, you know, fighting each other.

This is clearly a level of conflict that is devolving to a much more fundamental level, and there is no political structure to help put this back together. In this kind of situation, it's hard to know whom to speak with, especially if the U.S. is seen by everyone as being the generator and, in many ways, the beneficiary of this kind of chaos.

And somehow there needs to be an intermediary who all sides can think of as not having a vested interest in either the status quo or any specific outcome, who could come in and begin the very long and painful process of healing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you agree with that, Mr. Nematt, this division of power, this lack of a sole power source that one would even talk to?

SALAMEH NEMATT: There's no doubt about it. You need a central kind of -- powerful center of government to begin with. And this doesn't exist today.

But there is no other alternative but to continue on this level to try to strengthen the central government. I think that what we have in Iraq today is a -- it is sort of a global war, a regional and a global war, with the U.S., moderate governments on the one side, trying to help the democratically elected government of Maliki.

And we've got the Syrians and the Iranians and the other countries that do not wish to see democracy in their midst, because they fear that democracy might spread and might undermine their regimes. So this is a global war, in a sense.

Unfortunately, it looks like the U.S. and Western alliance, if you like, with the moderates are losing simply because they're losing the political battle on the ground. I think this is not the case in 2004. The insurgents were able to claim that they were in control of cities like Fallujah. Today they do not, cannot claim control over any area of Iraq.

And in that sense, I think the Iraqi army is fighting, and they are making progress. The problem is that there's no stomach in Washington to continue supporting this war, so it's a case of losing politically while you are winning militarily, in my view.

Iraq caught between Iran, U.S.?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask, first you, Professor Levine, about one of the key features we mentioned in the set-up, Muqtada al-Sadr, talking about leaving the government; at least some of his representatives were talking about that today. To what extent is he actually in control of things now? And what would the impact be if he were to leave the government?

MARK LEVINE: Well, I think his threat reflects the fact that he's losing control of the street and trying to get ahead of his own people who have been acting on their own. You know, he started off as kind of this gangsta rapper figure who really had the ear of the street and was speaking to the concerns of these young, unemployed, angry armed men.

And then suddenly he's part of the government. He's part of the higher-level political process, and he's not necessarily viewed as close to the street, so people act on their own. This is his attempt, most likely, to try to regain control of his base.

But if the Mahdi Army is already disobeying the government and not following orders and acting on his own, then his leaving officially the government, while it might have some symbolic value, it's only going to reflect something that's already happening on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Nematt, al-Sadr is also now demanding that Prime Minister Maliki not meet with President Bush next week. A White House spokesman today said that meeting would go on. Where does that leave Prime Minister Maliki?

SALAMEH NEMATT: I don't think that Muqtada al-Sadr can basically opt out of the government and parliament, because he might end up shooting himself in the foot, unless he guarantees that his withdrawal from the government is going to bring it down, is going to call for new elections, which doesn't look likely at this stage.

I think he's just basically doing Iran's bid, in a sense. Iran wants to say, Iran is backing the Muqtada al-Sadr militia and other militias in Iraq. And the Iranians do not want the Iraqis to go to Washington to solve their problems; they want the Iraqis to come to Tehran to solve their problems.

It's a power struggle between America and Iran and their allies on either side, with the Iraqis caught in the middle, and with the Iraqi government caught in the middle. And I think Muqtada al-Sadr is playing on these divisions and these polarizing forces.

The U.S. role in negotiations

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about the U.S. role here. We saw that clip of the U.S. captain, I think it was, expressing the frustration -- if they come out looking like they're on one side, they have this problem, on the other side, they have another problem. Does the U.S., can the U.S. have a role in stemming the violence that we're seeing in the streets right now?

SALAMEH NEMATT: I'm afraid the U.S. cannot openly take sides in this conflict, but if it doesn't take sides in a sense, at least with the government, the democratically elected government, if it doesn't side with the majority and appears to be appeasing or trying to appease the Sunni minority, it's going to send the wrong signal, and it's going to lose both sides.

It looks likely to me that a shortcut would be the U.S. to decide its strategy. The Shiites are a majority; they have the right to form the government. Too bad for the Sunnis. They have to understand that they lost the war, that their man, Saddam Hussein, is in prison, waiting execution, probably, and that this is the only way to, in a way, cut short this confrontation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Levine, how do you see it?

MARK LEVINE: Well, I think we can't divorce this from history, not surprising, since I'm a historian. But, you know, the U.S. went in talking the rhetoric of democracy, but I think most commentators and most scholars who knew Iraq and the region knew we never had any intention of really bringing democracy, because of the implications across the board in the region, which would have been against our interests.

So because of this, from the very beginning, as anyone who was in Iraq like me saw, it was plagued by so much corruption, so much violence, so much countering against democratic forces on the ground that we helped create this situation.

So the U.S. now is just viewed so negatively by everyone, I think there has to be another, you know, another mediating force -- perhaps the U.N., since it's been sort of out of Iraq as a leading role long enough, or some Arab forces who aren't tainted, or other forces from around the world who can come in and create a kind of mediating, a kind of conference that could maybe begin to heal the wounds, if everyone understands that the end process is one where the U.S. is gone from Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Levine, Salameh Nematt, thank you both very much.