GWEN IFILL: For more on the uptick in violence in Iraq, we turn now to Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe. I spoke with him a short while ago from Baghdad.
Ed O’Keefe, we understand that June was the bloodiest month for the U.S. military in Iraq since 2008. What — what explains this uptick in violence?
ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: That’s right. There were 15 troops that are either — that were either killed or died in the month of June.
U.S. officials here in Baghdad and back in Washington are fingering Iran for helping at least three Shiite insurgent groups here in Iraq for — essentially, they have been getting training and weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard special forces.
Some forensic testing that’s been done on weapons that were used in attacks last week apparently shows that these are longer-range weapons. They’re a lot more accurate. And it suggests that the insurgents have been getting better training, U.S. officials told me today.
They are very concerned about this here. But the U.S. continues to say that Iraq is the one that is responsible for responding to these attacks, that because these attacks are happening on Iraqi soil, it’s up to the Iraqi security forces to step up and do something about it.
GWEN IFILL: Well…
ED O’KEEFE: They also point out, notably, that, even if U.S. troops weren’t here, this violence would be continuing, all the more reason for the Iraqis to step up and do something about it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, if the U.S. says the Iraqis should step up and do something about it, what does this tell us about the state of Iraqi security right now?
ED O’KEEFE: Well, part of the reason — or part of the frustration among American officials is that, while their pleased with how the Iraqi security forces have responded — they have taken the lead in several counterterrorism measures — they have targeted insurgent groups over the past several weeks and months — they feel that perhaps they could be doing a little more.
Part of it, the problem, is that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, still hasn’t named a new defense minister and a new interior minister, and that, if there were leadership at the top of those two important ministries, perhaps there would be clearer direction given to the Iraqi security forces to go out and target these groups a little more.
That said, for the most part, if you talk to military officials here, they say a lot of progress has been made, that, whether you’re an infantry soldier in the Iraqi army or part of the special forces, you are better trained today than you were even just a year ago.
GWEN IFILL: In these attacks, who is being targeted? Is it civilians? Is it military? Is it something that has nothing to do, in many ways, with the war itself?
ED O’KEEFE: You have, in a sense, two different types of attacks that have been going on. Though there haven’t been any this week, there have been attacks targeted at U.S. troops and U.S. installations, most notably towards the south along the Iranian border. And that’s where the U.S. officials are concerned that these Iranian-backed Iraqi insurgents are getting the training and the weapons necessary to target them there.
There was a pretty deadly set of explosions in the city of Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad, today. That’s a Sunni-dominated area. You had at least 35 killed, at least 28 injured, though it’s believed dozens more were injured in that situation.
And, there, local officials tell us you have got more of a Sunni-on- Shiite kind of situation brewing. That is a more localized situation. But then, on Monday, across the country, there were a series of attacks targeting local police and Iraqi soldiers. You had a series of suicide bombings. You had booby-trapped vehicles. And in some cases, you had a continuing wave of targeted assassinations that was looking at — or targeting local police officials and in one case at least a university official here in Baghdad.
Targeted assassinations using silencer pistols is a newer type of violence in Iraq, one that’s obviously troubling to local officials, but it’s just the latest example in sort of this ongoing violence. So, there’s no real way to really bring it all together, but it’s a demonstration that there still are a lot of different problems.
Either it’s targeting U.S. troops, it’s sectarian, or it’s targeting local government officials.
GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about how they’re — the U.S. officials were perhaps laying this at the doorstep of Iran. When we see one-two punches like we saw today in Taji, is that also bear the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq?
ED O’KEEFE: Yes.
If you talk to U.S. officials, they have said today that in fact this type of attack that focuses on a local or provincial government facility is the hallmark of al-Qaida. And, of course, because you have that one explosion followed by another, that’s something we have seen all over the world, whether it’s al-Qaida in Iraq or al-Qaida in Europe or any other corner of the world.
GWEN IFILL: Now, everybody is planning — at least it’s on the books for the U.S. to withdraw the last of its troops there by year’s end. There are still, what, 46,000 troops on the ground? Is there any talk about extending the U.S. stay on the ground, the forces?
ED O’KEEFE: There are several reports even just out today that suggest that U.S. officials are suggesting any number of troops, anything from 2,000 to 10,000 to 13,000.
As one U.S. official joked to me a little while ago, he said, look, six months from now, one of these reports will have gotten it right. But, tonight, there is no discussion going on between U.S. officials and the Iraqis over how many troops might stay on beyond December.
We had a conversation with the U.S. ambassador here over the weekend. And he said, look, if the Iraqis come to us with some kind of proposal for troops to stay, we will consider it. For us, it’s not about the numbers. It’s about what exactly U.S. troops would do.
Most of them in the last year have focused on what is called advise-and-assist responsibilities. They essentially hang back when Iraqi forces go out to conduct counterterrorism measures or target other groups, and only jump into it if, for some reason, it’s not going well.
But you talk to military officials they say things are going pretty well. The problem is, Iraq still can’t defend its skies, still can’t defend its big port down in Basra, and military officials say that the Iraqi still want some more training, whether it’s basic infantry training or more specialized training.
So it’s there that U.S. officials believe the Iraqis will come to them with some kind of a request. We’re expecting the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, to meet with the prime minister, Maliki, and other political leaders as early as this week to once again talk about this.
There have been several meetings, and no big conclusions just yet. But the thought is that perhaps we’re getting much closer to some kind of a request that would be given to U.S. officials. And at that point, it lands back in the lap of President Obama and the Pentagon. They will have to discuss this, figure out what exactly they could do, how many more troops could stay here beyond December.
Remember, you have got 17,000 diplomats and security contractors that will be here working at about 15 different sites. They will be working on police training, general diplomatic activities, economic development. USAID has several projects here as well.
The American presence will continue beyond December. The question is, will they be diplomats in plainclothes, or will you also see several Americans in military uniform?
GWEN IFILL: And contractors as well.
Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post, thank you so much.
ED O’KEEFE: Good to be with you, Gwen.