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Q&A: Violent Attack in Tikrit Raises Questions About Security in Iraq

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A violent, five-hour long attack Tuesday on a government building in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, claimed at least 57 lives and prompted new questions about the strength of security in Iraq.

Gunmen wearing belts holding explosive materials stormed the headquarters of the Salahuddin provincial council, took hostages, killing some execution-style, and torched the bodies of three council members. Some of the attackers wore the uniforms of Iraqi security forces and opened fire at a checkpoint near the entrance to the compound.

The coordinated attack draws fresh attention to terrorists still operating in Iraq, despite an overall decline in violence. The bloody incident follows a rash of car bombs and attacks on Shiite pilgrims in January near Karbala, and a raid in October on a Catholic church in Baghdad that left 58 people dead.

For more context on the security situation in Iraq, the NewsHour spoke with Jane Arraf, correspondent in Baghdad for the Christian Science Monitor and Al Jazeera English:

What’s the latest on the attack in Tikrit?

JANE ARRAF: Everyone is still trying to untangle how many of these people were killed because the government compound was attacked by gunmen and suicide bombers, and how many of them were killed in a really bad rescue attempt. I’m not sure if we’re really going to get to the truth, because it’s very hard to untangle these things, but certainly in a hostage situation timing is really tricky. You want to move in quickly enough so that all hostages haven’t been killed already, but if you move in you run the risk that, if there are suicide bombers, they are going to detonate whatever explosives they have, killing more people. Certainly this one appears to have been a tremendous loss of life from the initial incidents that started it off, and the government is still trying to investigate what exactly happened.

Who perpetrated it?

ARRAF: I haven’t yet seen any claims of responsibility, but generally when it’s a well-coordinated attack like this — and they have been increasingly well-coordinated — it does have the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-linked attack because of the use of suicide vests and suicide bombers. When you’re talking about somebody who is going to blow himself up, that really creates the need for an infrastructure — the planning, the network, all of those things. Not to mention the recruits who are willing to blow themselves up. And that traditionally is an organization, and these attacks in the past have been linked to al-Qaida.

What’s the security situation like in Iraq?

ARRAF: Since the protests started (in February), there actually has been a lull of attacks in Baghdad. Baghdad has traditionally been one of the more violent places — it’s a very target-rich environment with a lot of government ministries and basically all the symbols of not just the Iraqi government, but of the U.S.

One of the things we’ve seen evolve over the past year or so is a change in tactics. Al-Qaida and other groups seem to have moved away from things like bombings in marketplaces, where they indiscriminately kill civilians, because there’s been a huge backlash against that. They’re still specifically targeting Shias, because one of their aims appears to be to reignite the sectarian violence that led the country into civil war, and they’re still targeting security forces: police, the army and government officials. Government officials are harder to get to in Baghdad because they’re in the Green Zone for the most part, and it’s very well-protected.

But certainly security officials are out there, and we’ve seen a lot of targeted assassinations — things like gunmen using silencers and a lot of sticky bombs, or bombs placed under the carriage of a person’s car that explodes when they get in.

The biggest one like (Tuesday’s siege in Tikrit) that we’ve seen is the church attack in October. That was a similar incident — a coordinated attack involving layers of attacks and then a response by Iraqi forces that led to further deaths. Al-Qaida in Iraq took credit for that one and said it would continue to attack Christians.

Who are mainly the targets?

ARRAF: Al-Qaida’s target really is anyone who doesn’t believe what they do, whether that includes Christians, other religions or even Muslims, but more importantly and certainly more prevalently anything connected to the government because they believe that it’s a puppet government to the United States and any attack that they can launch on government infrastructure shows that the government can’t protect its own people.

This one in Tikrit was really aimed at government officials. It was a government building, an installation that was very well-protected, but it really showed a few things I think. It showed the lapses and the weaknesses in security that can still be exploited. It also showed that these groups are still very much out there — that in many places this war is not over.

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