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Iraqi Politicians Talk of Limiting Shiite Cleric al-Sadr as Chaos Continues

December 13, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong, welcome. What can you tell us about the latest incidents in Baghdad targeting civilians?

EDWARD WONG, New York Times: Well, there were a series of car bombs that went off today in Baghdad. It killed — the total death toll is in the dozens, and it’s just among the continuing series of attacks that is directed at civilians.

We believe it’s part of the sectarian war, this civil war that’s going on here between the various militant Sunni factions and Shiite factions. And it’s what the U.S. is hoping to rein in, but right now they’re at a crossroads, as you know, strategy-wise, in terms of what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say you believe it’s one faction or another, does anyone ever claim responsibility for attacks like these after they’re committed?

EDWARD WONG: If it’s a very spectacular attack, you might get a claim of responsibility immediately afterwards. It might take a few days. A lot of the claims usually get posted on jihadist Web sites.

And oftentimes, when you’re talking about car bombs, for example, then you’re talking about militant Sunni groups. Those are the ones that often take claim for these kinds of attacks.

Civilians fleeing Baghdad

RAY SUAREZ: Are people fleeing Baghdad in greater numbers now? Are people making decisions to change where they live inside the city, believing that their families can no longer be safe where they are?

EDWARD WONG: They are. You're seeing a lot of that, even among some of our own Iraqi staff members. You're seeing them trying to figure out ways to move their families outside of Baghdad or outside the country.

We know a lot of neighborhoods that are undergoing violence, undergoing sectarian cleansing are seeing a lot of movement. You see people -- a lot of Shiites heading south, for example, to holy cities like Najaf or Karbala, where it's very predominantly Shiite, and very heavily controlled by security forces, or militias.

You see a lot of Sunni Arabs moving to Fallujah. We get reports from one of our Iraqi reporters in Fallujah saying he sees large numbers of families coming to the city and asking for residence there. A lot of them stay with other family members or with members of their tribe when they move to these places.

You also see a lot of people going to Syria and Jordan these days.

Iraqis look to provide own security

RAY SUAREZ: Even as the tempo of violence remains high the way it is, is the Iraqi government maintaining its position that it is ready to take over security in the capital city and wants a handover from U.S. forces?

EDWARD WONG: The Iraqi government has presented a plan to President Bush asking for a drawdown of U.S. forces in the city center. The plan basically asks for the U.S. forces to move to the perimeter of Baghdad and basically act as a guarantor of last resort for the Iraqi government. And the Iraqi government would like to see its own soldiers take over much of the security in the city center.

Now, the fear, of course, is that this would lead to more sectarian cleansing, more sectarian violence. Since the government is at the moment a fairly sectarian government, very heavily Shiite, very conservative Shiite, and they've been asking the U.S. for a long time now to basically let them take control of this, and they say that they can do what it will take to end this war.

RAY SUAREZ: How does that request for a U.S. drawdown mesh with the reports in American papers and the wire services today that the U.S. is considering so-called "doubling down" in Iraq, sending more forces in, at least for the near future?

EDWARD WONG: They're not necessarily mutually exclusive reports, because the Iraqi plan that calls for a U.S. withdrawal to the perimeter of Baghdad could also call for a bolstering of U.S. forces on the outskirts of Baghdad, and also for U.S. forces to concentrate its fight in Anbar Province, for example, where you have a lot of Sunni militant groups working out there.

Obviously, those groups are a direct threat to the Shiite-led government. And they would love to see the U.S. increase forces in a place like Anbar and tamp down on those groups.

At the same time, the reports that we're seeing today about the surge option, as some people call it, or the double-down option, also says the U.S. -- one of the U.S. options is to take on some of the Shiite militias before they draw down their forces again.

So, obviously, that's something that the current Iraqi government would be hesitant to pursue, because it depends on some of these Shiite militias for its backing and its political support.

The role of Muqtada al-Sadr

RAY SUAREZ: Ed, what can you tell us about political efforts inside Iraq to isolate or marginalize the anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr?

EDWARD WONG: Well, these talks have been going on for a while now, but they've been gaining momentum recently, partly because of President Bush's direct intervention. He invited a prominent Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, to the White House a little earlier. And just yesterday, he met with Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent Sunni Arab leader.

And what the Americans are trying to do is to get the Iraqis to form a new political alliance, basically a realignment of the political blocs in the parliament, to basically give their unconditional support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The prime minister right now relies on Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric who leads one of these militias, for his political support. But the thinking is among the Americans that, if this moderate -- so-called moderate alliance can give the prime minister political support, then the tie with Muqtada al-Sadr will be broken, and the prime minister and the government, along with the Americans, can move against Muqtada al-Sadr, if they need to.

Now, I know that some people, like the White House, are calling this a moderate alliance. A lot of the groups in the talks right now are not moderate. They have their own very politicized agendas. But one thing they do have in common is that they all want to get rid of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqis react to Study Group report

RAY SUAREZ: One of the dominant Iraq-related stories in the United States over the past week has been the results of the Iraq Study Group. Has an American effort to find a new Iraqi policy gotten much attention in Iraq among Iraqis?

EDWARD WONG: It depends on who you're talking about, Ray. Among ordinary Iraqis, a lot of them are fairly skeptical of any search among the Americans for solution at this point. They themselves don't know what would make this better; there's a lot of deep pessimism here.

And, for example, they're aware that there was this report that came out. Many are aware that President Bush met recently with Prime Minister Maliki. But when you ask them questions about it, they just throw up their hands. They say, "What can the Americans possibly do? They created the conditions for what's going on here. None of their policies have improved the life here in Iraq. If anything, it's made it worse." And they're just very, very skeptical that the Americans will come up with solutions at this point.

Among politicians, it's a different story. We hear a range of opinions among Iraqi politicians, but I think the general sense is that many of them take issue with some of the recommendations in the report.

RAY SUAREZ: Edward Wong of the New York Times joined us from Baghdad. Ed, good to talk to you.

EDWARD WONG: Thanks a lot, Ray.