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Report From Iraq: Civil War Intensifies From Baghdad to Balad

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Los Angeles Times Baghdad Bureau Chief Borzou Daragahi joins us from Baghdad: “The level of bloodshed between Sunni and Shiites as well as the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces… is as bad as I have seen it.” [includes rush transcript]

Four days of slaughter in the town of Balad killed at least 91 people by Monday. The bloodshed began with the beheadings of 17 Shia workers on Friday. In response Shiite militias poured into the area and went on a killing spree. Fifty Iraqis were killed in other attacks across the country, including up to 30 dead from two major bombings in Baghdad. Iraqi police also reported finding 67 corpses scattered throughout the capital on Monday.

Meanwhile, President Bush telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reaffirm his full support for the Iraqi government. White House spokesman Tony Snow said that Bush urged Maliki to ignore rumors that Washington has set a deadline for the Iraqi government to control the activities of insurgents.

This comes as a White House panel of advisers is said to be ready to call for a major shift in Washington’s policy on Iraq. Members of the panel, which is led by former US Secretary of State James Baker, told the Los Angeles Times that this could include large troop withdrawals. The U.S. death toll in Iraq has been soaring this month. Fifty nine U.S. soldiers have died so far in October, putting it on pace to be one of the deadliest months of the war for US forces.

  • Borzou Daragahi, Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us on the line from the Iraqi capital.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Borzou Daragahi is the Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us on the phone from Baghdad. Welcome to Democracy Now! Borzou, welcome. It’s good to have you with us.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Thanks a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: First, can you talk about this conversation that President Bush had with al-Maliki about the issue of there is no timeline?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I’m not sure what happened in the conversation. I saw Tony Snow’s remarks on the transcript. But I can tell you that from this end, Maliki, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is looking increasingly weak and ineffective. People have major doubts about him. Now, that’s not all his fault. It’s not just the driver, it’s the car. It’s flawed. The government is structurally weak. The constitution makes for a weak prime minister who is hemmed in by all of these checks and balances. So to some extent, even if he wanted to do something to rein in militias or restore services, he’s not really able to.

AMY GOODMAN: And the level of violence right now?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s very, very high, as bad as I’ve ever seen it, the level of bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as really the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. It’s not just a civil sectarian war that’s going on. There’s also the insurgency is raging strong as ever. So it’s really — feels like it’s getting out of control.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Borzou Daragahi. He is in Baghdad right now. We have reports from a London paper, The Times of London, reporting calls are increasing to oust al-Maliki and replace the current government with a group of five strongmen who would impose martial law. According to the paper, the proposal to suspend the democratic process in Iraq is being widely discussed in political and intelligence circles.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I mean, I think that’s a really, you know, interesting theory, but the reality on the ground is that the government’s just weak. It’s not just the person at the helm. What are they going to do? Order a crackdown on the militias? The militias are probably as strong, if not stronger, than the government. There would be a massive uprising in the south. There would be an increasing move in the Kurdish north towards autonomy. They just don’t have a lot of really good options. And that coup option, while it might sound good on a PowerPoint presentation, on the ground here in Iraq it’s not really seeming like it would work.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Borzou Daragahi, how about how you operate, the level of attacks on journalists? On Saturday, an Iraqi reporter working for the government-run Al Iraqiya TV channel was killed in a drive-by shooting in southern Baghdad. Another journalist with the TV channel Nahrain was kidnapped. On Friday, a radio announcer with Voice of Iraq was shot while driving to work. On Thursday, eleven people assassinated at a TV station in Baghdad in the deadliest attack on journalists so far.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yeah, journalists are being attacked at an unprecedented rate, as well. We try to be careful. We try to go under the radar. We do get out there, but we’re hemmed in, especially by these surprise rolling checkpoints, where they ask for your ID. Presumably, they’re looking for Sunnis or Shiites to target in sectarian reprisals, but who knows what they would do if they found a foreign journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about what is happening now in Balad, the level of violence there?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yeah, I mean, that’s the kind of thing that everyone is really afraid of, this kind of open civil warfare, this open daylight killing of people. There’s been similar incidents. There was an incident like this in the neighborhood of Jihad in Baghdad. And this is just the latest outbreak of this kind of warfare, where people are just randomly killing each other and not even trying to hide it anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN refugee agency is estimating 1.5 million people are now displaced in Iraq. How do you see that around you?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s so evident. You know, I mean, every single Iraqi person that I come in contact with, it seems, is himself displaced in some way or another. You know, they’re staying at a relative’s, or they’re making plans to leave the country, or they’re making plans to move. So this is definitely affecting a lot of people. It’s disrupting a lot of lives. This level of violence is not something that you can’t shield yourself from.

AMY GOODMAN: Borzou, one of the recommendations that’s being reported, though the report hasn’t been released yet, from James Baker, the Secretary of State, is the possibility of dividing the country in three parts. You also have Sunni groups, a network of militant Sunni groups declaring a separate Islamic republic inside Iraq, stretching from Anbar province in the west to Baghdad to as far as Kirkuk. The Sunni group said the move was needed, as Kurdish and Shia groups move to set up their own republics. Can you comment on this?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yeah, I mean, it just shows the — I mean, that statement, as crazy and out of whack as it was, from a group calling itself the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which is linked to al-Qaeda. They issued a videotape. They had a guy that they designated as their minister of information, and he was basically declaring a new state. It just shows how much the security situation has devolved. It just shows how much the authority of the Maliki government is being questioned.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Iraqi government postponing the national reconciliation conference that had been much heralded and highly publicized, officials saying the conference was put off for unspecified emergency reasons.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yes, officials say that it was put off because of technicalities, but if you talk to the people in the agency that’s running that conference, they also acknowledge that indeed Iraq is not moving towards the direction of reconciliation. It’s moving away from that direction, so it’s the opposite of reconciliation and compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Borzou Daragahi, your reaction just overall, do you see things just descending now?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I mean, it seems like the trend lines are very bad, you know. In terms of the violence, it’s up. In terms of the attacks, they’re up. In terms of services, electricity, water, basic services, healthcare, they’re all down. In terms of the number of people displaced, they’re all up. So it doesn’t seem like there’s much good happening. There is some hope in that the Iraqi army — not the police, the Iraqi army — does seem to be increasingly competent and has been doing some good things. They seem to be more professional than the Iraqi police, but that remains to be seen whether they can have an effect on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the Iraqi government has announced that Saddam Hussein verdict will be delivered November 5th, just days before the U.S. elections.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I’ll let analysts in the U.S. comment on what they think of that. Yeah, I mean, it did happen that way. The U.S. officials here insist that indeed the trial is an Iraqi process and all those kinds of decisions are made by Iraqis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Borzou, thank you for being with us. How do you protect yourself as you report in Baghdad?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: We just — we travel very discreetly, and we don’t really — we try not to talk about or let anyone know how we’re reporting in Baghdad. That’s one of the things that keeps us maybe a little bit safer than some of the Iraqis, who don’t have that luxury. They have to tell family and friends what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, be safe, Borzou. Borzou Daragahi is the Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you for joining us.

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