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Reappraising U.S. Withdrawal from Iraqi Cities

Interviewee: Jane Arraf, Baghdad Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor, 2005-2006 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 25, 2009

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Veteran reporter Jane Arraf says in an interview from Baghdad that the massive truck bombings on August 19 in the capital have shaken the Iraqi people and government. She says the repercussions will be lasting. U.S. authorities, Arraf says, may have to take a new look at the policy of leaving security under Iraqi control in urban centers. She says that the bombings may make it more difficult to continue the reconciliation policy of bringing Shiites and Sunnis closer. "Iraq is a really complicated place to begin with but this attack, and its repercussions, could really threaten stability," Arraf says.

In recent days there were truck bombings in the center of Baghdad, killing many people. There have been a lot of recriminations as to who was responsible--al-Qaeda, the Baathist party. On the other hand it's the start of Ramadan, which is usually the time when people try to get together late at night to celebrate. What is the mood like in Baghdad right now? I assume it's very hot?

It's actually about 120 degrees and there are many, many people who don't have air conditioning and still have electricity only an hour or two per day. It is pretty brutal, which is why not a lot usually happens during Ramadan when it falls in the summer. The bombings occurred last Wednesday and they were really incredibly devastating. We're talking about suicide truck bomb attacks on two of the symbols of Iraqi sovereignty, at the heart of Iraqi statehood, the finance ministry and the foreign ministry. At the foreign ministry, where I went just after the bombing, and where over the weekend I talked to some of the survivors and the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, we saw a truly devastating site. These were the worst attacks in more than a year and half, but it's really the repercussions that will have as major an impact as the bombings themselves.

What kind of repercussions?

On the security level, it has cast light on what really, truly does appear to be systemic failure of the Iraqi security apparatus. We're talking about the ability of whoever was behind this to put together two huge truck bombs--these were four-ton trucks. The one that hit the foreign ministry was packed with two tons of explosives and they were allowed to drive through the streets on roads where you're not supposed to drive any trucks in daylight hours. That says something about what the government believes is negligence, if not collaboration, by some of the security forces. They've arrested eleven security commaders for investigation.

The foreign ministry is protected by the pesh merga, the military arm of the Kurds. Each ministry here was given to a specific political party or political faction as part of the way that the country was set up when the United States was in charge. The foreign minister is Kurdish and the pesh merga control the foreign ministry. According to the foreign minister, there hasn't been a security breach within the building in six years. When the Baghdad government and higher authorities decided that things were safe enough, they [dismantled] some of the blast walls and some of the checkpoints, [but] they didn't actually consult with the foreign ministry. And that's part of the reason why this truck bomb was able to barrel down that road. That in itself was a huge breach. In July in towns throughout the north, some of them in disputed areas, there were horrendous bombings at Shiite mosques and other soft targets. Some people believe that this is all connected, that those security breaches should have been examined. Part of this, of course, is the fact that the United States had a different role here after June 30 when it pulled out of the cities, which means the United States doesn't really have a visibility, they can't do the same intelligence gathering, which really means they can't play as much of a role as they did before June 30.

The United States [forces don't] really have a visibility, they can't do the same intelligence gathering, which really means they can't play as much as a role as they did before June 30.

Are there political repercussions?

Yes, and that's where it gets very tricky and very tangled. When you talk to Iraqi officials, they believe this is a fight for survival. The Shiite-led government believes that there are Baathists who want to topple them. There are Iraqi officials who firmly believe that there are military people, former Baathists, who want to launch a coup. And that doesn't make the Sunnis feel very secure, particularly since we've seen things like the governor of Baghdad, Salah Abdel-Razzaq, saying that they might arrest some Sunni members of parliament in connection with these bombings. That creates a huge division.

What about talk of reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis?

Iraqi and U.S. officials always say the key to stability is reconciliation, and by that they mostly mean reconcilitation by the Maliki government [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] with the Sunni groups including, former insurgents and the Sunni political parties. In the aftermath of the bombings, it's hard to see where they go from here with all the accusations that have been thrown around. And then there are Iraq's relations with its neighbors. Over the weekend, the governor of Baghdad said Saudi Arabia was behind this. The interior ministry released a taped confession which may or may not have actually been a confession from someone who says that Syria was involved in this. That doesn't really bode well for Iraq's relations with neighboring countries. And we have to draw a difference there between the government and the foreign ministry. The foreign minister, who is Kurdish, actually has very good personal relations with the Saudis. But the Saudis hate Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and they hate the Shiite-led government. Iraq is a really complicated place to begin with but this attack, and its repercussions, could really threaten stability.

Let's talk a bit about the political developments today in which all the Shiite parties agreed on a united front for the January elections that excludes Prime Minister Maliki.

It's a coalition led by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which used to be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq but changed its name and has an element of Sadr people [those loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] in it as well as some other Shiite parties. Maliki has been trying for quite a while to form a broader coalition. He's trying to sell himself as a nationalist, essentially, so he has been talking to some of the Sunni parties, some of the Kurdish parties, some of which are already in the alliance. He wants a broader-based alliance.

This is a broken country and there is a big disconnect between people and the government that has been picked to serve them.

The United States would prefer to have a broad-based political coalition, but what do the people want?

The preference in the street is really is for technocrats, for people who can run a government, for people who can run ministries. When I was talking to people in the street at the time of last January's elections, they didn't want religion; they actually wanted services. They want really basic things they have not gotten yet from their politicians. They want electricity back on more than two hours a day, they want water, they want schools built, they want jobs, they want homes. This is a broken country and there is a big disconnect between people and the government that has been picked to serve them. They surely are not getting much from their government leaders. Maliki has been popular because he's been seen to have delivered security. Now whether that holds after Wednesday's bombings is up in the air. So the fact that there's a new Shiite coalition doesn't necessarily mean that it will be an exclusively secular party. At the end of the day, this next election is really going to be about giving people services, about actually not being as corrupt as other leaders have seemed to be, and less about religion.

What is the morale of the U.S. command now in Iraq? Can they help at all?

There's a very delicate dynamic right now. The whole idea was that after June 30, the United States would step down from security in the towns and cities. There wouldn't be combat troops in the street and it would truly be an Iraqi show. And it's happened perhaps to a faster extent than even the U.S. commanders would have envisioned. I was in Ramadi and Anbar Province and the local Iraqi police wanted the Marines to help, but decisions to ask for U.S. help had to be made by the Anbar operations command, which is an arm of the operations apparatus attached to the prime ministry. It has not made a single request for help from the Marines since June 30 and that's the case in a lot of these towns. Which was all well and good up until last Wednesday. Those bombings indicated to a lot of people that we have to stop pretending that things are fine and that applies to the U.S. commanders as well. One Iraqi senior official told me literally that they can't pretend that everything's fine as they engage in a responsible drawdown. Because in some cases, Iraqi security cannot handle it. They don't have the intelligence capability. They don't have the technology to detect explosives.

They don't have a lot of the more sophisticated skills and the technological assets they actually would need to be able to fight this insurgency. They certainly have what it takes in terms of cultural knowledge, obviously, but this is still an insurgency. When you can build two-ton truck bombs in the middle of Baghdad, which is, according the interior ministry, where it happened, and then drive them through the streets, there's got to be something wrong there.

One more question about Ramadan. Are people celebrating anyway?

They celebrate after dark when it's a little bit cooler. They have expected to have the curfew lifted. Generally during Ramadan, as you know, people celebrate very late at night and then sleep in the daytime when they're fasting. There's been a curfew that's been in place here since the start of the insurgency that lasts from midnight til 4 a.m. Authorities had planned to lift that, but with the bombing last week they apparently have decided not to do so. That means that people aren't going out as much as they normally would and they aren't going as far as they normally would. The government is telling them that there could be more attacks. This is probably one of the tenser Ramadans that anyone can remember here.

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