TOPICS > Politics

Deadly Car Bomb Targets Shiite Neighborhood

January 25, 2007 at 11:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Damien Cave, welcome.

Even as the new Bush strategy for Iraq is being debated in the U.S., the prime minister in Baghdad has announced that he’s got one, too, Operation Imposing Law.

What’s the plan?

DAMIEN CAVE, The New York Times: The plan is — from what we can tell, is very similar to what the Americans have offered.

He hasn’t gone into too much detail, but the main point that he’s trying to make here is that the Iraqis are in control of whatever it is that ends up happening in Baghdad with the security plan.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the prime minister declaring that, at the end of this process, his government will have a monopoly on the use of armed force in Iraq?

DAMIEN CAVE: He’s made — he’s made no claims like that, in terms of getting actual complete results and disarming gunmen.

His main focus and his main promise has been to go after people of both sects, and to basically not let anyone who breaks the law get away with it, and be protected by their affiliation of tribe or sect or connections to power, which is something of a more ambitious promise than things that he’s made in the past.

The big question, of course, is whether or not he will follow through. Similar questions have been made before, and, in some cases, they have been less than completely dedicated to the actual enacting of those problems.

RAY SUAREZ: So, is he implying there that he’s even ready to fire on or disarm the Mahdi army?

DAMIEN CAVE: Like many — many people, including, in some cases, the Americans, the specific naming of the militias is not something that he would want to do very often.

He has shown evidence and discussed, recently, raids and arrests of several people who are connected to Shiite militias of various sorts. And he’s been arguing for weeks now that this idea of an Iraqi government that doesn’t function, and that does not try to do its best to hold people to the law, regardless of sect, is inaccurate.

And he has provided some evidence of that, suggesting that, if he continues on this trend, it may be something of a shift, or at least an expansion, to something that’s broader than what he’s done in the past, in terms of going after Shiite militias and the Mahdi army.

Sectarian divisions

RAY SUAREZ: Prime Minister al-Maliki unveiled Operation Imposing Law in the Iraqi parliament. Is he likely to get much support there, seeing that many of the deputies have ties to armed groups?

DAMIEN CAVE: It's very unlikely.

Parliament has become a place that is as sectarian as the streets here, in many ways, where you have large Shia parties and large Sunni parties, who basically talk past each other, in many cases, and accuse each other of misdeeds, and basically keep the parliament in deadlock.

And, so, we can expect support in some cases from his counterparts, who are the Shiite leaders, but the idea of a consensus in parliament, the idea of what he was calling for today, which was a national consensus around the security plan, is difficult. It seems it will be a challenge for him to actually create that, given the history that he's had with some of these guys.

And, you know, there are some of the same frustrations and bad blood between the leading political figures here as you can see when you're at a market and you're talking in a Sunni neighborhood vs. in a Shia neighborhood. Both sides are accusing the other of having done more misdeeds. And each individual sect feels that they are more victimized than the other.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the prime minister promised that this security plan would be put in place without regard to sect or faction, but are Sunnis worried that it won't be applied evenhandedly?

DAMIEN CAVE: They are.

I mean, this has been a concern of theirs for a long time, and in part why, in many Sunni neighborhoods, they welcome the Americans as what they see as a more objective party and a more evenhanded protector.

There are concerns about that. And, once again, you know, the idea here is that, as far as Maliki is concerned, to try and do his best to prove that he will go after both sides. And, you know, he hasn't spoken too much about what he would do beyond that to win over the Sunni opposition.

Challenges facing security forces

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were recently embedded with American troops during some heavy fighting in Baghdad. Was the new al-Maliki plan much in evidence?

DAMIEN CAVE: I think this was, in many ways, a prelude to what may come later, in terms of the American surge.

And what it revealed, at least for me, is -- I was with this platoon for 20 hours of the first operation -- is the difficulties of urban combat. This area of Haifa Street, which is roughly 1,000 yards from the Green Zone, has become this honeycomb of empty apartments, where gunmen are -- can fire at will, and move from one apartment to another, hiding, without ever being clear, you know, one, if it's a Sunni gunman, two, if it's a Shia gunman, three, why they're firing.

And the Americans that I was with who were following Iraqi army units and working with Iraqi army units, it was, in many cases, almost impossible to tell whether -- who was firing at them, whether it was a single gunman, whether it was an Iraqi army guy on the roof. The Americans, in some cases, didn't have communications with the Iraqi army counterparts.

And there was -- it was, in many cases, very chaotic, which was not to say that it wasn't organized, as organized as urban combat can be. But it's a really, really difficult job, particularly in this area of Haifa Street, where you have high-rises on one side, and these hovels on another, where the rooms are of varying sizes.

And, as these troops are moving in large groups from one room to another, they find themselves in open areas, and in areas, you know, in dark corners, in dark alleyways. Trying to maneuver through this environment was extremely difficult for these guys, no matter how hard or how well they were trying to do it.

The effectiveness of Iraqi units

RAY SUAREZ: What did you observe about the effectiveness of Iraqi forces that were in the fighting alongside American troops?

DAMIEN CAVE: I mean, as I have seen in the past, with Iraqi security forces, it was, in many ways, a mixed review.

They did not run away when they came under fire. They continued to fight. And, yet, there was also a sense, for many of them, that this was almost a field trip for them. There was very little sense of ownership for a lot of the troops, who seemed to be nowhere near as well trained as the Americans.

In one case, we were standing out -- the Americans were hiding in a small apartment down this alleyway by a mosque, and a group of Iraqi soldiers was just standing out in this alleyway and wide open. And a sniper started firing at them.

Two of them ended up wounded. And the Americans had been telling them to get in the building for about 10 minutes before the sniper shots. And this happened repeatedly throughout the day. And the Americans were constantly having to say, to tell them where -- to suggest to them, at least, where to go, how to protect themselves, and what to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Damien Cave of The New York Times joined us from Baghdad.

Damien, good to talk to you.

DAMIEN CAVE: Yes, thank you.