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Violence Continues as Iraqis Await Appointment of Key Ministers

June 5, 2006 at 6:05 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ, NewsHour Correspondent: John Burns, welcome.

Why hasn’t Prime Minister Maliki been able to seat the final and very important posts in his cabinet?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, “The New York Times”: Well, it’s really, I think, a problem that’s embedded in the nature of the government itself.

Under American prodding, they’ve constructed a national unity government, which, as you know, involves all the principal political factions — the Sunni Arabs, the Shiites and the Kurds — in order to try and construct a government that will draw on broad national support and draw down the insurgency.

The countervailing fact is, of course, that that gives overlapping veto to each side. And after I don’t know how many rounds now of negotiations, but running back many weeks, what happened is that every time that the horse has come to the fence, it hasn’t jumped.

The most recent occasion being on Sunday when the parliament was called into session to approve nominees by the prime minister. But the prime minister had to withdraw his nominees at the last moment, because the Sunni Arabs had a nominee for minister of defense, who the Shiites vetoed, because of what they alleged was a Baathist past.

And then bizarrely, the Shiite nominee for minister of the interior — and he, like the Sunni nominee for minister of defense is a former Saddam general — could not win universal approval from within the ruling Shiite bloc, and was vetoed, in effect, within his own political bloc.

So, it looks like they’re back to the beginning again. And every day that passes it becomes a more serious problem, because this is the heart of the matter. Can they get control — or begin to get control — over the deteriorating security situation?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, defense and the interior means the army and the national police force.

Are things running effectively?

Are those things still managing to run effectively, even without leadership at the top?

JOHN BURNS: Well, they are, of course, at a certain level. And the bottom line here is that you have 130,000 -- or nearly, now, 140,000 -- American troops under capable American commanders who have, of course, a still decisive say in all matters of security here.

But the Americans had wanted a strong initiative by the new government of its own, particularly in relationship to security in Baghdad, which has deteriorated very significantly this year. And for that they need an Iraqi -- authentic Iraqi -- political leadership.

And Prime Minister Maliki, who has been talking about the iron fist, is not going to be able to apply that iron fist unless he has ministers. It's not just having ministers; it's having the kind of command that being able to appoint those ministers will represent. And it's clear that at the moment, he doesn't have that kind of authority.

Mass kidnappings in Baghdad?

RAY SUAREZ: Speaking of security in Baghdad, what's the latest on the mass kidnappings right off the streets of the city?

JOHN BURNS: Well, today was a bad day. The agencies reported 50 people picked up from what, in effect, is a kind of bus terminal on the city's western side. It turned out from "The New York Times" reporting to be more like 24 -- still serious.

And particularly troubling about this is that, this is one of a number of incidents in recent days which seem to us to have no reason.

Sectarian killing, regretful as it may be, or regrettable as it may be, has its purposes in the minds of the killers. But much of the killing now seems to be beyond purpose.

Example: the people who were taken off the street in Baghdad today, disappeared, were from all sections of the community. Yesterday, two minibuses and a car, about 50 miles north of Baghdad on their way to Baqubah. Aboard seven students on their way to their final exams, at least one woman student, are hauled off the minibus and executed -- 20 of them.

Who were they? They were Shiites, they were Sunnis, they were Kurds. And they were Turkmen.

The pattern now seems to be increasingly one of random and completely incomprehensible violence, to which there does not appear to be an available solution.

What is happening in Basra?

RAY SUAREZ: Heading south from the troubled area around Baghdad, one place Americans haven't been hearing about a lot is Basra -- British administered, and for a long time relatively peaceful. Is that changing?

JOHN BURNS: It is. It is. And that's a very troubling thing, too.

The British, with some 7,200 troops now, are, as you know, the second largest component, if much smaller than the American component in the coalition forces, which are gradually disintegrated in the sense that many of the other players are withdrawing. The Italians are going. Many of the other contingents are vestigial.

The British are important. They have run, in effect, southern Iraq -- the four deep south provinces, including Basra -- since April '03, at the time of the invasion.

And they have had, as they themselves would have been quick to admit, the quietest patch that the coalition forces have had until relatively recently.

Now they are a beleaguered force. They lost a helicopter to what appears to have been an Iranian-supplied missile three weekends ago. They don't fly their helicopters during the day anymore. That's an almost paralyzing thing to have happen, since this is a helicopter war.

It's Shiite-on-Shiite violence down there, and it's getting worse.

And American commanders who had had the feeling that this strategic area to the south -- strategic in part, of course, because the largest amount of Iraq's oil is in the south and about -- very close to 100 percent of its oil exports, present oil exports, come from the south.

That is now prejudiced by these events, and the British force is really not large enough to contain it.

The investigation in Haditha

RAY SUAREZ: The investigation into the killing of civilians in Haditha continues.

How much of a splash is that making in the domestic media in Iraq?

JOHN BURNS: Well, puzzling as this might seem to Americans who have seen this marching across their evening newscasts and the front pages of the principal newspapers now for two or three weeks, it really hasn't made that kind of impact here.

Why? Because killing is all about.

There was a cartoon in one of the Iraqi newspapers over the weekend of a father leaving for home, and the family sobbing as he says, "I'm off to work." "Farewell, farewell," say the family.

Iraqis are absolutely surrounded by and battered by violence. That 24 people -- as we believe, 24 civilians -- died in Haditha in very troubling circumstances at the hands of the United States Marine Corps, which, as we know, may lead in time to court martial -- is oddly, as it may seem to Americans, just another in a series of events that have overwhelmed them.

And it doesn't seem particularly surprising to many Iraqis who have been battered by relentless violence now, not just since the invasion of 2003, but going back through the 24 years of Saddam. They think that's what people with guns do.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns joining us from Baghdad. John, good to talk to you.

JOHN BURNS: It's a pleasure.