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Triple Car Bombing in Iraq Disrupts Drop-off in Violence

December 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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In southern Iraq on Wednesday, a triple car bomb killed as many as 41 people and wounded at least 150, the worst bombing in four months. Damien Cave of the New York Times provides an update from Baghdad.

GWEN IFILL: Bombings in two countries. We start with a report on the latest attacks in Iraq. I spoke earlier this evening with Damien Cave of the New York Times in Baghdad.

Damien, the last time we spoke, it was about how violence in Iraq seemed to be on the decline. Now we’re hearing about these attacks in Amarah, the bloodiest in months. What happened?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, in this case, there was at least three car bombs that exploded in quick succession in a city in Maysan province south of Baghdad. It was a pretty coordinated attack that killed quite a few people and wounded dozens more.

Shiite area targeted

GWEN IFILL: Can you tell us a little bit about Maysan province and Amarah, in particular?

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure, Maysan province is about 200 miles south of Baghdad. It's a pretty remote region that borders Iran. And Amarah is one of the major cities there.

And it's a largely Shiite area that's dominated by two militias in particular, the Mahdi Army and the Badr organization, which is connected to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. These two groups have been warring for control of Maysan province, Basra, and several other oil-rich reasons in the south for quite a while now. And it appears to have spread from areas like Basra into Amarah.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about, do we know at this point tonight who is responsible?

DAMIEN CAVE: No, it's actually quite difficult in this case to figure out who it is. These kinds of car bombs are typically attributed to Sunni extremist groups, but in a region that's almost exclusively Shiite and pretty protected by Shiites, it's hard to imagine Sunnis getting in there to be able to do this.

That said, you know, I spoke to British military officials, and we spoke to Iraqi officials there. And at this point, no one can really tell what the reason was or who exactly did it.

Issues of internal violence

GWEN IFILL: You'd spoken before about violence in Baghdad and violence in the northern part of the country, but this is something that's happening in the southern part and, in fact, in a province where control was handed over from the British back to the Iraqis some months ago. You mentioned what British officials had to say. Did the handover spur any of this?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, they handed over the province in April. And in recent months, this area, as the British have pulled back to large bases, has continued to stay violent. And there are questions about whether or not their pullback has a direct impact on security there.

But this is, you know, an area of the country that's been chaotic and difficult since at least 2003. The Brits have essentially said, "We're going to go back to our bases in the hopes of us not being attacked and trusting the Iraqi security forces to pick up the slack."

But at this point, it's not clear that they're able to do that, which raises questions about other areas, as the Americans start to pull back and send some of the surge troops home.

GWEN IFILL: And in fact, Basra, a town we are more familiar with, that the British are preparing to fully hand over control of, was considered one of the success stories in Iraq, wasn't it?

DAMIEN CAVE: It was initially. I mean, but as -- in the past year, year-and-a-half, one of the trends of Iraq has been violence that's not just sectarian, Sunni or Shia, but actually within the same sect. And Basra is, in many ways, the best example of that.

Shiites there have been fighting for control of money and resources and government jobs and power. And this is something that's happened there, as perhaps the best example, but it's also happening in other neighborhoods in Baghdad and to some extent in Anbar province, where it's exclusively Shiite -- I mean, exclusively Sunni, excuse me.

So, you know, the fighting here is, in many cases, not just about sect or religion, but as it often is in wars, it's about money and power.

GWEN IFILL: Does this make the south a new battleground?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's clearly a battleground, and it's been a battleground for much of this year. As violence has declined through much of the country, in places like Baghdad and Diyala province and Anbar, Basra has in some ways been an anomaly.

It's a place that remains as violent today or appears to remain as violent today as it was a few months ago. So it's a sign of the fact that, even as security improves in much of the country, there are still places in Iraq that are very dangerous and that have yet to be brought under control.

Baghdad benefits trickle down

GWEN IFILL: One of those places we've heard about is Mosul, where there have been reports of insurgents returning to that area. Is that another example of a place where the violence seems to be entrenched?

DAMIEN CAVE: That is another example, actually. American commanders have said that they believe some of the Sunni extremists groups that have been pushed out of Baghdad and Diyala province have moved up north to Mosul. That's also an area where, in terms of concentrations of American troops, there are fewer there than in other areas with similarly large populations. So that appears to be a factor there.

But it's the case that, in the north, that appears to be one of the places where's al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and other Sunni extremist groups appear to be concentrated. It's possible that that's the last readout for them, as they've been pushed out of other areas, but it's also possible that it could be a staging ground for what could be a resurgence in violence later on. At this points, who knows which direction things are heading up there?

GWEN IFILL: As you speak to American officials, and British officials, and Iraqi officials about the security situation right now on the ground, do you have a sense that they are trying to figure out a way to anticipate or account for or prepare for the kinds of attacks that we saw today in Amarah?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's very hard to tell. I mean, at this point, there's still a euphoria over the fact that security is down. Most of the officials that I talked to are talking mostly about that, about the fact that Baghdad is safer.

And even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today said that this attack in Amarah was just a distraction, an effort to blind people to the fact that security has gotten better elsewhere.

So there hasn't been too much of a focus on how exactly to fix the problem in the south, and that's something that is increasingly difficult for American and Iraqi officials here in Baghdad, because it is, in fact, quite a different world down there.

And the influence of Baghdad down there appears to be diluted the further it gets away from the center. So I have yet to hear any sort of comprehensive plan, besides naming a new police chief here and there, to actually get that area under control.

U.S. maintains "cautious optimism"

GWEN IFILL: And so far, the official line still seems to be one of optimism about the direction of the violence level?

DAMIEN CAVE: There is still optimism, but also a cautious optimism. I mean, American commanders here repeatedly say they're not, quote, "dancing in the end zone," that the war isn't over, that this is simply -- conditions have been created for what they hope will be some kind of national political reconciliation, which has yet to come.

You know, I was out in Anbar province for much of last week. And commanders there, while very proud of the accomplishments out there, also feel that things are fragile and they fear that things could go back to at least some level of violence. So at this point, there is optimism, but it's still a pretty cautious optimism.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks again for giving us the view the from the ground, Damien Cave of the New York Times.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure, my pleasure.