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Death Toll in Iraq Suicide Bombings Reaches 250

August 15, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been a week of spectacular violence in Iraq: suicide bombings in the north taking a toll of hundreds; the kidnapping of a government minister; and random attacks across the country. It’s also been a week of further political stalemate in Baghdad, seemingly fruitless meetings among opposing factions and, amidst boycotts and defections, growing questions about whether the government of Prime Minister Maliki can even survive.

We get four assessments of the situation now from Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., she’s now executive director of the Iraq Foundation, which promotes democracy there, and she was in Iraq earlier this summer. Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she served in the Carter and Clinton administrations. Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she travels frequently to Iraq. And Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan.

Welcome, guests, all.

Juan Cole, months into this beefed-up U.S. troop presence in Iraq, we see these just horrific bombings yesterday in the far northwest. Is the violence in Iraq unstoppable at this point?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, this kind of violence is unstoppable by military means. You couldn’t possibly guard all of the small villages in Iraq. There are still big bombs going off in downtown Baghdad. The only way realistically for this violence to end is for the Sunni Arab guerrilla groups that are behind it to be brought into the political process. You have to have something like what happened with the IRA in Britain.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Rend al-Rahim, the U.S. military is blaming the attacks yesterday on Sunni insurgents, on al-Qaida-affiliated groups. Does this suggest that, if you push them out of one area, they’re just going to move on?

REND AL-RAHIM, The Iraq Foundation: Well, we’ve seen what happened. I mean, we pushed them out of the Anbar area pretty much. They then moved to Diyala. From Diyala province, they’ve moved to Kirkuk. We don’t really have control of Kirkuk yet, but it does seem a bit like a balloon; you squeeze one end, and it bulges out of the other.

What I very significant — of course, these events were horrific, and the death toll is very high — but what I found very significant is that they happened in the far northwestern corner in Iraq, in an area which is really a backwater, that did not happen in the very big urban areas, in the cities. And one wonders, why? Was it because they targeted those, or because they couldn’t operate on that scale anywhere else, that other parts were restrictive to them?

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Jessica Mathews? Do you think the violence is still stoppable or unstoppable?

JESSICA MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I wouldn’t say flatly unstoppable, but it has enormous momentum, internal momentum, and it is so diverse. It’s sectarian; it’s insurgency, anti-occupation; it’s criminal; it’s mafia. There are so many different sources of it.

And I should add, it’s also political, in the sense that it is militias linked to members of the government. So part of the problem here is that the government is part of the problem.

I think the most the U.S. can do is to keep a temporary lid on the violence and that the only thing ultimately that would dramatically reduce it is a political solution, because this really is a political struggle. We think of it as a “war,” because we are at war, but we don’t have a particular enemy. So we have to begin to understand it in our domestic debate as a political struggle inside Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, that was the premise of the surge, was that if you kept a lid on the violence, tamped down the violence, that there would be political progress, would create the space for political progress, but that seems to be flagging. What is your take on the whole situation now and the relationship between the two, between the violence and the political side?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think that there’s no question that the whole aim of the surge was, to use the famous phrase, to create space for the political groupings to try to make some kind of a deal. And the premise was that if U.S. troops, the surge with Iraqis, could cut back on the most heinous violence, the car bombings, by al-Qaida or the hardest line of the Baathists, that this would create a situation where there would be less pressure inside the Shiite community for revenge attacks. And that could put a spanner in this endless cycle of violence.

But there’s two things I think you have to say. First of all, it’s clear that the hardest of the hard line were going to keep trying to do these attacks if they could, especially before the September deadline. So I think Rend’s question is the interesting one: Are they doing them further from the center because they can’t do them in the center?

The second is, even if you had a political reconciliation, that would be the more, shall we say, moderate or nationalist Sunnis who might be reconciled. You would still have hardliners trying, but you might have a better effort to tamp them down.

Having said all that, there hasn’t been any political progress, even amongst the moderates, which is discouraging because the effort of the surge was to try to help those factions.

JESSICA MATHEWS: And, in fact, I think you could add that the political situation has gotten worse, not just the lack of progress against the benchmarks, but there really has been regression.

Defections from the government

Rend al-Rahim
Iraq Foundation
I think we are...witnessing a deterioration in the political situation....The system is built on the wrong basis, and this is the problem that we're having.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Juan Cole, there certainly have been a lot of defections from the Maliki government now on which this whole premise rested, to some degree. Do you think the Maliki government is up to the job?

JUAN COLE: I don't think an elected Iraqi government, under the system that was put in place, has very much prospect of achieving reconciliation. The parties were arranged on sectarian bases. It's a winner-take-all kind of system.

The Sunni Arabs can always be outvoted. They can always be sidelined. Al-Maliki hadn't bothered last spring to meet with his Sunni Arab vice president. I mean, President Bush came on television last January and asked Mr. al-Maliki to reach out to the Sunni Arabs and reconcile with them, bring them into the political process. Mr. al-Maliki had some Sunni Arabs with him in his government, and he has now lost them.

So it's absolutely right that the process is going backwards. There's been no real progress on a petroleum bill. There's been no real progress on negotiations about how the petroleum revenue would be equitability distributed to groups like the Sunnis. So Iraq is, at best, in political deadlock, but actually is slipping back from some previous achievements, bringing the Sunnis in, for instance, at least in a minor way, to parliament.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's slipping back?

REND AL-RAHIM: Well, I think we are, you know, witnessing a deterioration in the political situation. I do agree with Juan Cole that it is not an issue -- or at least I think I agree with him -- it's not an issue of Maliki or any other prime minister. The system is built on the wrong basis, and this is the problem that we're having.

The other point to...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because it was really based on an ethnic or sectarian kind of division of power?

REND AL-RAHIM: Well, it came right from CPA days. It was based on a sectarian and ethnic quota system, rather than on a political system, political parties and so on. And the idea of ethnicity and sectarianism was built into the state structure and encouraged.

Now, at present what we have done is we have put in the surge as our big push to combat terrorism, to reduce sectarian violence. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a comparable, robust push on the political level.

MARGARET WARNER: For the reasons that you said?

REND AL-RAHIM: Well, no, I think that this robust push has to be assisted by the international community, whether it's United States or the Security Council. I mean, Resolution 1770, which was signed on Friday, voted on, on Friday, it does give more attention to political reconciliation, but it doesn't describe how it can help.

Political process moving backwards

Trudy Rubin
Philadelphia Inquirer
You have a situation now where Iraqi factions are unable to reconcile on their own or unwilling. And I'm talking even about the moderate factions.

MARGARET WARNER: Jessica Mathews, do you agree that this whole political process now is -- you said it was going backwards, so it's worse than in paralysis. Does it need some kind of -- is there anything the U.S. or international community can do to get it going? Or is it...

JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes, I think we have to start over. I think the current government -- we've played out this string. And there are too many key players in Iraq who are outside of it and who feel that they can have no role in it. I think the ambassador just suggested that.

And what we need is a more inclusive process that includes both groups outside the government inside Iraq and Syria and Iran. This thing cannot be solved without a determined U.S. effort to engage Syria and Iran. You can't rebuild a failed state without the neighbors contributing and with the neighbors backing, you know, working to weaken it. And that means a lot more than sort of one-day meetings.


TRUDY RUBIN: Yes, I wanted to follow up on what Jessica just said. You have a situation now where Iraqi factions are unable to reconcile on their own or unwilling. And I'm talking even about the moderate factions. There are moderate Sunni and Shia leaders who want to move forward, but they're stymied by the system.

It's not just that it's sectarian. It's that it's set up a system where it's very hard to change the prime minister. There are other Shiite leaders who would like to change the prime minister, but since the prime minister has to be a Shiite -- they're the majority -- you can't get a consensus within the Shiite community.

So if the Iraqis can't do it themselves, there has it be a push from outside. There are Sunni Arab countries who have their proxies inside, even if they're not sending men. There is Shiite Iran, which has its Shiite allies inside. It doesn't own them, but it supports them.

And at this point, unless you have a larger regional process where the outside neighbors, for their own self-interest, are pushed into making a deal where they set out new red lines so that the Sunni Arabs don't feel threatened by Iran, and Iran doesn't believe the Sunnis are going to retake Iraq, unless you have some kind of wider process, I don't think you can get the deal inside Iraq.

And the Bush administration is heading in just the opposite direction. Even though there are talks between the U.S. ambassador in Iraq and his counterpart, at the same time, the U.S. is trying to organize a Sunni alliance of Arab countries against Iran and has targeted one of the largest factions in the Iranian military as terrorists. Down that course, I think you have a greater internecine conflict in the region played out over the body of Iraq.

Danger of proxy war

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
I don't think that the Saudi government is giving money to people to blow things up in Iraq, but there are certainly Gulf millionaires who are.


JUAN COLE: Well, this is the real danger. I think people don't understand how dangerous this situation is. If you go to a proxy war in Iraq between the Saudis and the Iranians, and pipeline sabotage, guerrilla war spreads to these other countries, you could take off 10 percent, 15 percent of the world's petroleum production for a good, long time. And that...

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me, but do you think we're seeing a proxy war now?

JUAN COLE: Well, there is a proxy war at the margins. It's not a full-scale one. I don't think that the Saudi government is giving money to people to blow things up in Iraq, but there are certainly Gulf millionaires who are. I don't think the Iranian government is playing so drastic a role in Iraq as is often alleged, but there are people who would like to.

And the United States really, instead of resolving these contradictions -- I mean, we should be pushing King Abdullah to meet more frequently with the Iranian political leadership. We should be trying to avoid this thing spinning out of control in the Gulf, because the American economy depends on this region. And we're not doing it.

We're sharpening the contradictions. We're pushing the Iranians into a position where they're being declared terrorists. We're not really engaging with the Saudis to play the most positive role they could play. And diplomacy has not been a strong suit of this administration. It's not getting better in that regard.

MARGARET WARNER: Rend Francke, you wanted to get back in.

REND AL-RAHIM: Another type of proxy war that's being played out and hasn't been mentioned is what is perceived as a war between Iran and the U.S. on Iraqi soil and what is perceived as Syrian-U.S. war on Iraqi soil. So we have different levels of proxy wars, if they can be called "wars," but proxy conflicts, anyway.

Progress report next month

Jessica Mathews
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
On the security front, there may be temporary improvements, and there are some improvements in the Iraqi security forces. But the underlying reality of this is that the genesis of it is political.

MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line, I want to go around to all of you four briefly, we're one month today from the day that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are due to give their report to the White House and to Congress about progress. Beginning with you, Jessica Mathews, do you think they'll be able to report significant progress on either the security front or the political front?

JESSICA MATHEWS: Not on the political front if it's honest, no. On the security front, there may be temporary improvements, and there are some improvements in the Iraqi security forces. But the underlying reality of this is that the genesis of it is political. And so long as we don't solve that, we don't solve anything.


REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, there is no progress politically. There is some progress in terms of sectarian war, and what we hope is that Petraeus and Crocker will ask for a matching thrust on the political level from the international community and from the United States.


TRUDY RUBIN: The sad thing, there's a certain amount of progress in the tribal areas. This does not translate into political progress. And the sad thing is a general and an ambassador in Baghdad are hard-pressed to tell the administration it should be doing regional diplomacy, but I bet that's what they're thinking privately, because without political process, nothing they achieve militarily will make a difference.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Juan Cole, what do you think we're looking ahead to there?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think that we've got excellent personnel in Iraq. Ryan Crocker is an experienced ambassador to the region. General David Petraeus is among our best officers, especially on counterterrorism. But the task that they have been given is just insuperable.

You know, the number of Iraqis killed went up 25 percent in July over June. The number of troops killed in July was twice what it ordinarily has been in July. It depends on how you look at these numbers. There have been fewer big bombings; although, there still are big bombings, but there have been more people killed by sniper fire.

So the violence has not subsided, and the guerrilla resistance in the Sunni Arab regions is still very powerful. And there's no sign of a political solution to this thing, which is the only real solution to this kind of guerrilla war. So I'm afraid I don't think, if the report is honest, we're going to see a lot of progress here.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Juan Cole, Trudy Rubin, Rend al-Rahim, Jessica Mathews, thank you.