JIM LEHRER: Our Iraq report comes from Richard Oppel of the New York Times in Baghdad. Ray Suarez talked with him earlier this evening by telephone.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Oppel, welcome. What are Iraqi and American officials saying about this latest upsurge in violence?
RICHARD OPPEL: Well, it had been a bit slower for a few days, but last week a senior American commander in Baghdad gave some reporters a background briefing where he quite bluntly said that he expected there to be an upsurge soon, that their best guess, or their intelligence was that the insurgents were regrouping, and he expected something to occur shortly. And that's what it looked like happened yesterday certainly, and with some continuation of that today.
RAY SUAREZ: Are they taking seriously the word that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been wounded?
RICHARD OPPEL: I think they're taking it very seriously, but they're also very careful to be skeptical about it. I mean, we had an American general in Iraq tell us today: we wouldn't disregard it, but we aren't banking on it; the intel isn't solid. It could be a ruse to throw us off his trail. So I think first, there's a question of whether the message is authentically from al-Qaida, which it sounds like there's at least a reasonable chance it is, given the Web site or the way it was posted over the Internet. But then the second question obviously is, even if it is from al-Qaida, you know, is it true or not? And I think the attitude of the military is that you have to assume that he's still alive and he is still out there and they have to do whatever they can to catch him and kill him.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, recently, a lot of the attacks -- certainly since the new Iraqi cabinet came to office, the insurgent attacks were aimed almost exclusively at Iraqi citizens. Now there's been a sudden spike in deaths among American service people again. Why?
RICHARD OPPEL: Well, that's right. I don't know that we know why the spike has happened against the servicemen. There were basically 14 deaths in two days, in a 48-hour period. The bulk of that was over the last twenty-four or thirty-six hours, with some large car bombs south of Baghdad and in Central Baghdad today. The violence against Iraqi civilians is... the concern about that among those American and Iraqi officials is that has been sectarian-driven violence, specifically Sunni militants and Sunni terrorists targeting Shiites and trying to foment under the basis of a civil war through attacks, as we saw yesterday. We saw three big attacks in Tal Afar in the North against a... we think the target was a Shiite... a prominent Shiite leader in a Shiite neighborhood in Tal Afar that killed around twenty, and a Shiite mosque bombing south of Baghdad that killed, we think, around fifteen or twenty; and in a bombing of a popular Shiite restaurant in a Shiite area in Baghdad that killed about ten also yesterday. The American military and the Iraqi authorities are not totally clear on the level of I guess what they call command and coordination and control among the insurgent groups and to what extent these sorts of attacks are coordinated. But clearly they've been targeting civilians, and in particular Shiite civilians, of late.
RAY SUAREZ: That idea that these attacks are meant to drive a wedge between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, and between Kurds and both of the other groups, is that something that the forces against the current Iraqi government, forces against the American presence, are open about in their communications? Do they say as much?
RICHARD OPPEL: Zarqawi in particular has long stated that one of his goals was to foment sectarian violence and sectarian divisions, so I think it's pretty clear that that is a principal objective of at least the people linked to him.
RAY SUAREZ: Over the weekend we saw an olive branch being held out by one noted Shiite leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. Tell us about that.
RICHARD OPPEL: Well, it's tough to know what to make of this. Sadr has an extensive record of making and quickly breaking pledges and promises of peace or reconciliation or anything along those lines. But basically Sadr is now holding himself out as a go-between between Sunni leaders who think that Shiite militiamen have been attacking them and in some cases murdering some of their leaders, and the Shiites, on the other hand, who believe that Sunni militants and Sunni insurgents have been responsible for the killing of Shiites. The other thing about Sadr is - the question is whether watching the political process develop as it has the last month or two, and the fact that the Shiites are now running the government, I think people will look at what Sadr is doing now and wonder whether he's basically trying to... realizing that the train is leaving the station politically, he's trying to get on before it's too late.
RAY SUAREZ: What do rank-and-file Iraqis make of all this? Is the violence changing their impression of both the American presence and of their own new government, and are they changing their daily habits in response to the violence?
RICHARD OPPEL: I think the daily habits have changed over time. That's been something that occurred well before this latest spate of violence that has occurred over the last three or four weeks. But there was a lot of euphoria after the elections, and it's pretty clear that the... certainly in the minds of Iraqi and American authorities over here, that the insurgents really have... since the Jaafari government was selected and sworn in, they've really tried to undermine the public's confidence in the government. And I think even the American military has done some polling in the last month or two that showed that what was sort of a euphoric feeling after the elections in the minds of average Iraqis has certainly dissipated. The violence we've seen over the last month is similar to what we've seen in some bad stretches over the last year.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Oppel, of the New York Times, thanks for joining us.
RICHARD OPPEL: Thanks very much.