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2 Bombings in Iraq Kill, Injure Scores as Security Concerns Persist

August 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: A man blew himself up in a crowd of 1,000 Iraqi army recruits today in Baghdad’s worst attack in months.Reports of the dead ranged from 57 to 61, or even higher, with at least 120 wounded.

A pile of sandals from men blown out of their shoes lay outside the recruiting office hours after the bomber struck.The suicide attacker had waited patiently overnight with men on the street before exploding his vest as they prepared to enter the recruiting station. Hundreds had gathered to hand in applications for Iraq’s army, one of the few good jobs available in a country racked with deep unemployment.

Shopkeeper Saad Hassun Bayati witnessed the attack.

SAAD HASSOUN BAYATI, shopkeeper (through translator):The bomber was sitting with them.When the numbers grew, it enabled him to explode himself and hurt the poor and innocent.Some of them are heads of households.I know a guy who sold his wife’s earrings to come up and enlist.

GWEN IFILL: The bomb tore through the crowd, the dead littering the street outside the office.A pockmarked steel pole in the square bore the markings of the ball bearings that packed the vest, magnifying its destructive power.

Medical City Hospital in Baghdad was overflowing with the injured and the dead.

MOHAMMED JASIM, eyewitness (through translator):What crime have those people committed?It is the government’s mistake, which is unable to protect such people.

GWEN IFILL: Those grave doubts are even more profound this month.All but 50,000 Americans will leave the country by September 1.

SOLDIER: Goodbye, Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: And the remaining force will focus on training, not fighting.

With the U.S. role winding down, insurgents have staged a string of recent strikes throughout Iraq, including a second bombing this evening in Baghdad, but the departing American ambassador, Chris Hill, said today in Washington the attacks have failed to achieve their goal.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq:I think Iraq is increasingly stable, and I think the security problems are not ones that are — have broad political significance.They have terrible significance for people involved in them, obviously.But they are the kinds of security problems that are not somehow shaking the political structures.

So, I take from that a sense of stability in — in the country.You know, Iraq is — has been around a long time.So, I think we can take heart from — from the direction there.

GWEN IFILL: Which direction remains unclear five months after the still-disputed parliamentary elections.No government has been formed, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and chief rival Ayad Allawi wrangle to form governing coalitions. I spoke earlier today, before that second Baghdad attack, with Margaret Warner, who’s in the Iraqi capital.

Margaret, we understand you went to the site of that bombing today.Tell us what you saw.

MARGARET WARNER: Gwen, we went to the site of the bombing late in the day.The police had cordoned off the whole area and weren’t letting media in.This area is really kind of across and catty-cornered from the Green Zone and up the Tigris River.

And we were able to approach it late.We got through by talking to the army officers there.And what we saw was a very huge square which had been an open-air market, but this is where we — we spoke to one of the police officers who had been at a checkpoint nearby and had witnessed it.

He said that people overnight had been waiting, camping there, young men, so that they could be first in line at this army recruiting station in the morning.All we could see was a gigantic pool of human blood still, I would say seven feet wide, and a huge pile of shoes.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, do you have any sense of who was responsible for this or why this location?

MARGARET WARNER: You would have to call this still the heart of Baghdad.There are a lot of government ministries and government buildings in this area.And whoever did it clearly is trying to send a signal that, as the government prepares to really take over even greater security responsibilities from the Americans, that they aren’t up to the task.

So, whether it’s al-Qaida, which is what the Iraqi military is saying officially, or whether it’s what quite a few people in the crowd — they suspect the hand of either the Iranians, Iranian intelligence, the Syrians — no one is quite sure, but there is just no doubt that the — that various insurgencies and terrorist groups out there still have the power to strike, if not in big coordinated attacks, as they used to, in still fairly spectacular ones with high symbolic value.

GWEN IFILL: With this violence, this uptick in violence we’re seeing, how insecure are people feeling about this upcoming pullout or handover or whatever you want to call it?

MARGARET WARNER: They sound insecure when they speak to me about it, Gwen.I have only been here, what, 36 hours.But, on the one hand, many are welcoming the fact that Americans are drawing down further.And they’re well aware that they haven’t seen American troops, for example, patrolling in Baghdad streets for over a year now.Americans pulled out from the cities a year ago.

But everybody knew that the cavalry was very nearby and it was very big, I mean, 150,000, 160,000 U.S. troops at its peak.By September 1, that’s down to 50,000, which is about 20,000 fighting forces.And the Iraqi people know this.And, so, what I have heard from a lot of people is pride in their armed forces, but also trepidation that they may not be able to handle it and that various groups are going to try to take advantage of this transition to step up their level of attacks.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there a pretty clear understanding or suspicion that there’s a connection between this violence and this upcoming change in ownership of this war?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Gwen.And, also, people here are making the connection between the violence and the lack of a new government here.As you know, elections were held five months ago.The two top vote-getting parties and other parties have still not been able to come up with a coalition or power-sharing arrangement.And what I have heard from people, shop people, shoppers, mothers, young mothers that we have spoken to today, and in fact a couple of young army officers whom I spoke to off-camera, is that this lack of a government is also another invitation to those who would try to exploit the still considerable weakness of this Iraqi state that is trying to stand itself up.


So, I would say both the — the political transition that has not yet been completed, as well as the military one, is — is making people nervous here.

GWEN IFILL: So, where does the political transition stand now, Margaret?Are we still in a standoff position there?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.And, in fact, Gwen, yesterday the standoff became more of a — more of one.The current prime minister or acting caretaker prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, received — his party received 89 seats.Ayad Allawi, head of another fairly secular-minded coalition, received 91 seats.

They have been trying to do a deal, but Maliki has also been trying to do a deal with a coalition of other Shiite parties.Yesterday, the two main factions basically broke off talks.Allawi took umbrage at something Maliki had said in an interview, when he dismissed Allawi’s coalition as nothing but a — quote — “Sunni bloc.”

Allawi just said:I have had it for now.

And he’s walked.Now I do know that negotiations still continue fast and furious.I don’t think that has stopped today.I have no indication it has.So, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.But, certainly, they are not close to a resolution, from what I understand.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, on the ground for us in Baghdad, thank you.