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Who Was Behind Latest Coordinated Attacks Across Iraq?

February 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A spree of shootings and deadly explosions across Iraq killed at least 55 people and wounded more than 225 Thursday. The Interior Ministry and a member of the Baghdad City Council blamed al-Qaida. Jeffrey Brown discusses the implications amid Iraq's shifting political structure with Jane Arraf of Al Jazeera English.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier today, I spoke with Jane Arraf of Al-Jazeera English and The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad.

Jane Arraf, welcome.

Tell us more about the targets here. They were clearly aiming at Shiite neighborhoods and institutions?

JANE ARRAF, Baghdad correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor: They were for the most part, Jeff, mostly Shia neighborhoods, in fact, even some in — near a Shia shrine.

But they were also aimed at security forces. Some of them were gunmen opening fire on police here in Baghdad. And, mystifyingly, one of the targets appeared to be an elementary school. This was in the town of Hillah, near the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad, where a car bomb exploded just outside the gates of a primary school, injuring dozens of children, so a wide range of targets, but all of them with a common denominator of seemingly seeking to destabilize security services here and instill fear, which they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is known about the insurgents who might have carried this out? Who are they? And tell us more about their possible aims.

JANE ARRAF: Well, everyone’s blaming it on al-Qaida, and everyone meaning from the Interior Ministry, which said al-Qaida was clearly to blame, to the foreign minister, who he spoke with earlier today. He said he believed it was al-Qaida-linked groups, and, furthermore, that this was aimed at disrupting preparations for the Arab League summit.

Now, Baghdad is due to hold a summit for the Arab League next month. It was postponed last year for security reasons. And they’re going full steam ahead. If you look out on the streets of Baghdad, you wouldn’t recognize a lot of them. It’s an incredible beautification project. They have got heavy security out. And they’re really aiming to show that the city really is safe enough.

Now, the point they’re making is when Arab leaders come here, they will indeed be safe, but that doesn’t help a lot of people here in the streets. So the main culprit is thought to be al-Qaida. They haven’t taken responsibility, but they have taken responsibility for similar attacks in the past.

And what a lot of people are looking at really is the fact that this was sectarian in nature, and that has been a hallmark of theirs, attacks on Shia shrines, attacks on Shia neighborhoods in an attempt to restart that sectarian violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jane, when they say al-Qaida, what exactly does that mean? To what extent, for example, are there foreign elements involved?

JANE ARRAF: That is a really key question.

Al-Qaida tends to be quite freely and in fact it’s become a franchise. So what we’re talking about here in Iraq are increasingly decentralized and small cells that are either linked to al-Qaida central, although, in a very diffuse way, or to what has become the main umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, and increasingly links with other groups.

Now, one of the things that the U.S. and Iraq say they did was really take down a lot of that network. It disrupted their communications, their lines of command. And we’re not seeing a lot of those big attacks that we have in the past.

But as we saw today, perhaps they don’t need those big attacks. This was a series of small attacks, but astonishingly in more than 15 different cities, in a wide variety of places. And it does demonstrate that they still have that ability to plan, to carry out these things and, importantly, to destabilize the feeling that Iraqis have that their country is secure again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, this does raise more questions and concerns about the Iraqi security forces since the U.S. forces left in December.

JANE ARRAF: It does, though when you say that to Iraqi officials, they say, well, we had big attacks, in fact, even bigger attacks, when the Americans were here.

But one of the things, interestingly, that was in the reaction to these bombings today were groups such as followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a political party that belongs to his front, which said that this was a failure of Iraqi government intelligence. And that’s really what it comes down to, because you can’t prevent car bombs, particularly suicide bombs, but what you can do, to a large extent, is try to find out who is behind them and get into those networks and use intelligence gathering and analysis.

It’s something that Iraqis have been relatively weak on. And it’s something the Americans help them with a lot. They help them with analysis, they help them the technology. It’s technology they don’t have and in some cases can’t buy from the United States. And there is a feeling that, on that side of it, they are indeed suffering.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Jane, this comes amid a continuing political conflict there, right? The U.S. embassy called this a heinous act that — quote — “tears at the fabric of Iraqi unity.”

What is the state of Iraqi unity in the government at this point?

JANE ARRAF: Well, that fabric was pretty torn already. It was supposed to be a unity government. It was brought together partly by the United States, which helped broker a deal in which there would be a wide-ranging coalition. Now that coalition has really frayed.

And it would take hours to get into the complications of exactly how dysfunctional the political system has been, but among the highlights are a Sunni vice president wanted for terrorism who refuses to come back for trial, no defense minister, no interior minister almost a year after elections were held.

Despite that, this country sort of stumbles along, and that is one of the astonishing things. So they’re talking about a national reconciliation conference, if you will, of political leaders to try to solve some of this. But, clearly, when you do not have a coherent, stable political system, it really sows unrest and fear.

And a lot of Iraqis in the streets, if you go out today and ask them, which we have done, who they think is behind this, they will say al-Qaida. But they’ll also say it’s political violence. And by that, they mean very bluntly they think political leaders are actually killing people. That is the level of fear, uncertainty and suspicion here that underpins almost everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Jane Arraf in Baghdad, thank you very much.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you very much.