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Iraqi Authorities Hunt for Clues After Baghdad Bombings

August 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Insurgent attacks in the Iraqi capital killed at least 95 people Wednesday. A Christian Science Monitor journalist provides an update from Baghdad.
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JIM LEHRER: A string of attacks across Baghdad killed at least 95 people today and wounded more than 500. They targeted the heart of Iraq’s government, striking the foreign and finance ministries. It was the bloodiest day in the capital city since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June.

Our lead story report comes from Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost. Ray Suarez talked to her this evening from Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Jane Arraf, welcome to the program. You were in the part of Baghdad targeted by these attacks. Tell us what you saw.

JANE ARRAF: Well, it was mostly what I heard, first of all. I was going to the U.N., which was commemorating the sixth anniversary of the bombing of U.N. headquarters, when there was a huge explosion, which turned out to be a mortar, landing fairly close to the U.N. building.

And then the blast, this huge blast that was part of a wave of explosions that rocked Baghdad in what really is the biggest security challenge, perhaps, to the Iraqi government in some time, and certainly a challenge to Iraqi security forces’ ability to secure the city.

Now, the biggest one was outside the Foreign Ministry, where a truck packed with an estimated ton of explosives detonated. There was another bomb shortly after near the Finance Ministry that collapsed part of an overpass.

Now, these are some of the most heavily defended buildings in Baghdad. Iraqi authorities say that they confiscated a third truck packed with explosives and showed that on television, big, red plastic barrels filled with explosive material.

All in all, it’s seen as a test, and a test that Iraqi security forces have failed today.

RAY SUAREZ: Who is the Iraqi government blaming for this explosion? Who would have an interest in committing this kind of crime?

Iraqi government blames insurgents

Jane Arraf
Christian Science Monitor
The Iraqi government is saying [the bombing is] Sunni insurgents and former Saddam loyalists, a strange sort of mix. But it does have the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

JANE ARRAF: Well, that's the problem in Iraq. Pretty much everyone has an interest, but this specifically, the Iraqi government is saying it's Sunni insurgents and former Saddam loyalists, a strange sort of mix.

But it does have the hallmarks of al-Qaida. I went to the site later this afternoon to see what the wreckage looked like and talked to some of the survivors, and it was a huge bomb that actually did look quite a bit like -- the remnants did look like that bombing six years ago.

It was a truck that managed to get close enough and packed with enough explosives that it did tremendous damage. The big ones are normally thought to be al-Qaida, the big suicide bombs, sophisticated attacks, coordinated attacks, and that's who's being blamed for this one today, being blamed, as well, on the streets. A lot of Iraqis think this is either al-Qaida or ex-Baathists, although some of them persist in believing it's the Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is part of an ongoing security problem in the Iraqi government. When you were talking to those people on the street, who do they hold responsible for the fact that they can't feel safe on the streets?

JANE ARRAF: Most of them are holding the Iraqi security forces pretty much to blame. Now, in talking to the people who were around the Foreign Ministry -- and these were people who were still, obviously, very distraught.

I met a woman who was searching for her daughter, who had been all morning and all afternoon. Now, people there are saying that it's the fault of the Iraqi government, as well.

This had been a city that was overrun with checkpoints, with concrete blast barriers. The Iraqi government has been trying to bring some of those down. And in fact, it dismantled one of the checkpoints two or three months ago close to the Foreign Ministry.

But other people were saying that Iraqi police essentially just stay on their cell phones all day long, not an entirely fair comment, but there is a lack of confidence particularly in the police, and it's really the police that are the key here. The Iraqi army is seen as a stopgap measure. And American troops, as you know, are out of the cities almost entirely, as evidenced by today, when they have a peripheral role in this tragedy.

Biggest attack since U.S. pullout

Jane Arraf
Christian Science Monitor
The American military likes to say that attack trends are down, that they're down from a year ago. That is true, if you look at the graph. But what Iraqis really look at, obviously, is how many people are being killed, and Iraqi casualties are up.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's good that you mentioned the American pullback, because this is the biggest attack since that pullback. Has not being in the capital hampered U.S. efforts to do intelligence work that may allow them to head off such attacks?

JANE ARRAF: I think one has to assume that it has. General Odierno, in charge of all U.S. forces here, just a few days ago was talking about that very element. There has been an increase in casualties.

Now, the American military likes to say that attack trends are down, that they're down from a year ago. That is true, if you look at the graph. But what Iraqis really look at, obviously, is how many people are being killed, and Iraqi casualties are up.

Now, General Odierno acknowledged that, when you don't have thousands of American troops in Baghdad and in other cities, they're not capable of gathering the intelligence from afar that they normally would be, and intelligence is the key here.

This is a fight that requires intelligence most of all, the intelligence to know where the insurgents are, to crack down on the networks. The Iraqis and the Americans have made great strides, apparently, in that respect, but there is a concern that al-Qaida and other groups, al-Qaida in Iraq, rather, and other groups are creeping back into the cities, particularly in Baghdad, in that security vacuum that exists.

Promise of a referendum

Jane Arraf
Christian Science Monitor
[The referendum] is pure politics. There are a lot of people who think that referendum won't take place, although it actually does give politicians something to boast about, that they've managed to hold the government to a promise.

RAY SUAREZ: Having said that, Jane, isn't the Maliki government talking about putting a referendum in place to speed up the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal?

JANE ARRAF: It is, and that is pure politics. There are a lot of people who think that referendum won't take place, although it actually does give politicians something to boast about, that they've managed to hold the government to a promise of a referendum.

If push comes to shove, American military officials are discounting this, as are American civilian officials. They feel that it won't make that much difference; it's a matter of a few months.

But it's a strange dynamic here. At the same time, General Odierno is proposing to actually shift troops and put U.S. troops in the north, which he says might require a tweaking of that security agreement. That again goes back to that security vacuum.

The feeling is that with tensions, in the north particularly, between the Kurds and the Arabs, al-Qaida in Iraq and other groups have found room in there. They're working their way back. And that's something that they're trying to address.

RAY SUAREZ: Jane Arraf joins us from the Iraqi capital. Thanks a lot.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you.