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2005-01-24

Violence Continues in Iraq as Jan. 30 Vote Looms

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A large explosion rocks Baghdad just six days before the scheduled Jan. 30 election. As violence continues to rage across the country, the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government has announced sweeping security measures intended to protect voters. We go to Baghdad to speak with journalist Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent. [includes rush transcript]

A large explosion rocked the center of Baghdad today injuring at least 10 people. The suicide car bomb–which comes just six days before the scheduled Jan. 30 elections–went off at a checkpoint near the offices of the US-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Supporters of the militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have claimed responsibility for the attack. On Sunday, Zarqawi apparently declared war on the election. In an audio tape on the Internet, allegedly by Zarqawi–he called on Sunni Muslims to fight against the vote.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, acknowledged serious problems ahead of next weekend’s elections. In appearances on the Sunday talk shows, he set a low bar for judging the success of the poll and dismissed suggestions that victorious Iraqi candidates might force an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.

As violence continues to rage across the country, the US-backed interim Iraqi government has announced sweeping security measures intended to protect voters.

The Iraqi government will declare a national holiday from Jan. 29 to Jan. 31, at which point an 8 p.m. curfew will be imposed, few cars will be allowed in the streets, citizens will not be permitted to carry weapons, and the Baghdad airport will be closed. Iraqi troops will be in charge of securing polling sites, while U.S. forces will remain in the background to prevent the image of American soldiers watching over Iraqis while they vote.

The BBC reports the whereabouts of polling stations will only be made public at the very last minute and the massive logistical operation of getting ballot boxes and papers in place will be carried out in secrecy.

  • Patrick Cockburn, journalist with the London Independent.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Baghdad, to Patrick Cockburn, a journalist with the London Independent. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Patrick.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation now in Iraq, in these few days before the election?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, I think there is a mood of growing terror in Baghdad. I mean, because of the expectation that there are going to be lots of car bombs during the election. I was this morning — as you mentioned, there was a suicide bomb attack on the offices of Iyad Allawi, the prime minister — and I went to the Yarmouk hospital just afterwards, where some of the security men who had been injured had just been taken. And I was very struck by the fact that even in the hospital, the wounded men refused to take off their black ski masks. They’re terrified that anybody would identify them and maybe shoot them or kidnap them later. So, they were very frightened of anybody taking their photograph. Looking around Baghdad this morning, the traffic is much less than I would expect. Usually there are big traffic jams here. A lot of people, I think, are just staying at home. Having said that, there isn’t much more violence than is normal, but there is an expectation that there’s going to be a lot more bombs, and people are very frightened.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think will be the turnout?

PATRICK COCKBURN: In Baghdad, I’d be surprised if the turnout was very high. In strong Sunni areas, Sunni Muslim areas like Adamia, people will boycott the polls, they will want to abstain, and if they don’t they will know it will be dangerous to vote. In Shia areas, people will probably want to vote, and will vote, but again, there’s some trepidation, from suicide bombers. So, in Baghdad I’d have thought, given the dangers, that — and that even if it wasn’t dangerous, many of the Sunni want to boycott the polls — it’s thought that the turnout will not be that great.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about Abdul Aziz al-Hakim? According to the Times of London, [he] said, "No people in the world accepts occupation, nor do we accept the continuation of American troops in Iraq." The Shiite cleric is expected to become the Iraqi prime minister.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, the Sunday Times in London may expect him to be the next prime minister. I must say that I don’t. I think it’s unlikely that a religious figure like him would be the next prime minister, but it’s true that, you know, Iraqis don’t want to be occupied. Nobody wants to be occupied. But one of the problems of the exiled parties that came back after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is that they are very dependent on the U.S., both those like Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, and even those who say they’re opposed to the occupation. They don’t have armed forces themselves. So, there’s an element of hypocrisy in this. I think that all of the exiled groups standing in the election have, whatever they say, at the end of the day are very dependent on the U.S. Army, and this, of course, will discredit them in the eyes of, certainly, many Sunni Muslims in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: The Knight-Ridder news service, Tom Lasseter and Jonathan Landay, have just come out with a piece talking about the Iraqi insurgency growing larger, more effective, saying the unfavorable trends of the war are clear. U.S. military fatalities from hostile acts have risen from an average of 17 per month, just after Bush declared an end to major combat operations, to an average of 82 per month. The average number of U.S. soldiers wounded by hostile acts per month has spiraled from 142 to 808 in the same period. Iraqi civilians have suffered even more deaths and injuries although reliable statistics are not available. Attacks on the U.S.-led coalitions since November 2003 have risen from 735 to 2,400 in October. The average number of mass-casualty bombings has grown from zero in the first four months of the U.S. occupation to an average of 13 per month. Electricity production has been below pre-war levels since October. Iraq is pumping about a half million barrels [of oil] a day fewer than the pre-war peak of 2.5 million barrels per day as a result of attacks, according to the State Department. Patrick Cockburn, finally, can you comment on these trends?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, all of that is true. It has been getting worse. The military situation has been getting worse. At the time of the attack on Fallujah, the recapture of Fallujah, you will recall that Mosul, in northern Iraq, a much larger city, largely fell under the control of the insurgents. Now, every so often here, we have announcements that a turning point has been reached. The turning point was first of all meant to be the capture of Saddam Hussein over a year ago, and there were lots of optimistic things being said by U.S. military and civilian leaders, then things progressively got worse. The handover of sovereignty in the middle of last year was meant to be another turning point. And now we have reached the election, said to be another — yet a third turning point, but I don’t think — talking to Iraqis, they really don’t believe that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Patrick Cockburn for joining us. Patrick Cockburn writes for the London Independent. He’s speaking to us from Baghdad on this few days before the January 30th election is set to take place.

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