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Suicide Attacks Kill 175 as Iraqi Government Plans Crisis Summit

August 14, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave, welcome. There seem to be two tracks going on today in Iraq, the military and the political, on the safety, violence, and we are hearing of untold numbers of people killed in separate fuel tanker bombings in Mosul. We have heard about suicide bombers in Fallujah, the helicopter crash. We have heard about bodies being found by the side of the road in Baghdad.

What is the state of the security situation there today?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, today appears to be one of the most violent days and weeks here in Iraq. And American military officials have been predicting for a while now that there would be a spasm of violence in advance of the deadline for report to Congress about the American project here in the surge. So it’s possible that this is beginning of what they expected.

However, violence here tends to go up and down at various times. It’s actually kind of hard to get an idea of whether or not this is something that’s coordinated or if it’s just simply a really bad day in a country that often has many of those.

GWEN IFILL: Operation Lightning Hammer, is there any connection between this new piece of the surge, the 16,000 troops north of Baghdad and violence that we’re seeing?

DAMIEN CAVE: It’s hard to tell. I mean, this operation is around Baquba and Diyala province, an area that they’ve gone into a couple of months ago to try and clear out insurgents that had taken control of a bunch of neighborhoods there.

And what they told me this week was that this was basically an assault on people who had moved simply to the villages outside of Baquba. Is it possible that they moved further north to Mosul and elsewhere, as they’ve done in the past when American troops have come through? That’s definitely a possibility, but there isn’t any evidence as of yet to suggest that this is the same people who were in Diyala who have moved to Mosul. It’s quite possible that this is simply another cell of terrorists who are attacking people there.

Sunnis and Kurds in Mosul have been battling for quite a while now, and this appears to be — it bears all the hallmarks of an attack from Sunni extremists on a small sect of Kurds known as Yazidis in two neighborhoods in Mosul.

The death counts at this point appear to be rising, and it’s not clear how many there are, but it appears to be quite a deadly attack that seems to be part of at least that city’s dynamic and possibly something broader than that.

Oil minister kidnapping

GWEN IFILL: And then we heard today there was a deputy oil minister who was kidnapped. Is that significant?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's significant because it's another example of gunmen who are dressed in army or police uniforms finding their way into a government compound to kidnap or kill government officials. In this case, it was a guarded residential area in a neighborhood of east Baghdad that's pretty safe, and somehow at least a hundred gunmen got in, and took the deputy oil minister and several other officials, threw them in the back of trucks, and sped them out of the area without any resistance.

You know, we're told that there was an army checkpoint about 200 yards away that at times has tanks there, and they didn't appear to put up a fight at all. So this speaks to the issue of infiltration and security forces among Shiite groups and also just an effort to undermine the political process here. That's something that the oil minister came out and said later tonight, that this may or may not be sectarian, but it is clearly an effort to just completely destroy the political process and any effort at reconciliation.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about that political process. We see where the prime minister is attempting to get differing groups together for kind of a mini-summit, a meeting today. What became of that?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's interesting. He's been discussing a summit coming up in the next few days, but today, according to the people who were involved, was not that summit. It was a lunch at President Jalal Talabani's house, and one of the participants, Annah al-Dulemi, a Sunni lawmaker, told us that nothing political was discussed. It was simply a lunch.

So this appears to be part of the ongoing process that leads up to the actual discussions. And, you know, how quickly that will happen, who will be involved, what will be discussed, and what will they agree to is completely up in the air. It's not clear at all that this summit will even happen, nor that they will agree. Many of the people that I've talked to are skeptical of them being able to come to some kind of grand compromise as the Americans hope they will.

Waiting on September's deadline

GWEN IFILL: Right now things seem frozen in place, less than a month before this deadline that everybody is waiting on, this September deadline that everybody is waiting on. Is that the purpose of Maliki's discussion about having a summit, trying to get things moving off the dime before that deadline arrives?

DAMIEN CAVE: What I'm told is this is a mix of Maliki and the Americans really looking to have some kind of momentum going into that September deadline. Even if it's just saying, "Listen, these guys are sitting down, they're talking, they're hashing out their differences, that's a sign of progress," that as lowered standard that the Americans have at this point would be enough for them to have something to move forward with.

Even the use of the word "summit," something that was used for American-Soviet discussions, is an effort to suggest this is a major happening, this is something that will lead to some kind of reconciliation. Whether or not that word is appropriate and this will actually lead to some kind of deal is unknown. Iraqis often get together, they have discussions. They will often agree to sit down. That part is normal. Whether or not they can actually hammer something out is less likely, according to lot of the people that I've talked to.

Outlining the Baghdad timetable

GWEN IFILL: So your reporting shows that the Washington timetable which General Petraeus talks about so often as being different from the Baghdad timetable, that the Washington timetable is driving a lot of this?

DAMIEN CAVE: The Washington timetable clearly has an impact in terms of what things are prominent, what things are made urgent. The question is whether or not it's actually working. I mean, a lot of the Iraqis will tell that this idea of American timetables just makes them want to rebel and say, no, we're our own country, and we're not going to follow your time or your rules.

So whether or not it's actually helping or hurting is debatable, but it's clear that it is driving some of the discussion and a lot of what's going on at this point politically, or what's not going on, which appears to be more common.

GWEN IFILL: So when you talk about looking for signs of conciliation, are there any signs that, for instance, the Sunni members of the government will return?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, there are signs that they will sit down and talk. And to some people, that could be defined as progress. Whether or not they agree to rejoin the government ministries or to really kind of work out deals on these things, it's really hard to tell.

Many of them are not saying very much. Those that are say that they're in discussions with certain groups bilaterally, so it's not a massive roundtable discussion. It's a Sunni group talking to Kurds to perhaps discuss Kirkuk. So at this point, it's still at the smaller-scale level. It has not reached, you know, a level of consensus that suggests that there will be some kind of big deal that will come out soon.

It could change at any moment. There's a sense of brinksmanship in which people tend to make deals here in Iraq at the very last second. But at this point, it's not clear that that's going to happen.

GWEN IFILL: A challenging and complicated day in Baghdad. Thank you for telling us about it, Damien Cave of the New York Times.