In Baghdad, the death toll from Sunday’s synchronized suicide car bombings has risen to 155. More than 500 people were also injured. It was the deadliest bombing in Iraq in two years. The blasts targeted the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Works and the Baghdad provincial government. Dozens of civil servants were among the dead. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the site of the bombings and blamed al-Qaeda and former remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime. He said the attacks would not affect the political process or parliamentary elections due in January. US troops have been called in to help with the investigation. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In Baghdad, the death toll from Sunday’s synchronized suicide car bombings has risen to 155. More than 500 people were injured. It was the deadliest bombing in Iraq in two years. The blasts targeted the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Works and the Baghdad provincial government. Dozens of civil servants were among the dead.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the site of the bombings and blamed al-Qaeda and former remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime. He said the attacks would not affect the political process or parliamentary elections due in January. US troops have been called in to help with the investigation. Meanwhile, the Iraqi interior minister, Jihad al-Bolani, said the bombings are connected to the attacks in August, when ten explosions rocked Baghdad, leaving more than 100 dead and 1,200 injured.
For more, we’re joined by independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. He frequently reports for Al Jazeera and has made multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He just returned from his latest trip to Iraq last week.
We’re going to go to a break and come back, where Rick will join us from Arizona. Stay with us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re back with Rick Rowley, independent journalist with Big Noise Films. He frequently reports for Al Jazeera and made multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s just returned from his latest trip to Iraq. We couldn’t reach him via Democracy Now! video stream; he joins us on the phone right now from Arizona.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rick. Can you just begin by explaining what you understand happened on Sunday with this massive twin suicide car bombing and who is being accused of the attacks?
RICK ROWLEY: Well, first of all, the first thing to say is that, you know, there is no peace in Iraq, that these bombings, first of all, put the lie once again to the three myths that we’ve been pushed about the war in Iraq: first, the story that the war is over; second, that we won the war; and third, that the lessons of this victory can be applied to Afghanistan. The fact is that what passes for calm in Iraq today isn’t peace at all; it’s a fragile, fraying truce after a brutal sectarian civil war, and it’s a truce without reconciliation that — because it’s put in place a system that is a continuing engine for violence, and tragedies like these are a legacy of the American occupation and will remain one for years to come.
So, bombings like these today — or on Sunday were attempts — I mean, you know, they’re being blamed on al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it seems likely that it was a group like al-Qaeda in Iraq that carried them out. And there are attempts by those extreme elements inside the Sunni insurgency to target the Shiite-led government, which they see as their sectarian enemy, but also to try to draw the Shiite militias back into an all-out civil war that could unite the Shiites again in their resistance. I mean, bombings like the ones on Sunday are remarkable for their massive scale, the carnage they cause, but there are multiple bombings in Iraq every single week.
And, you know, they’re grouped around three different conflicts. The majority of the bombings are smaller and are, you know, part of an intra-Sunni fight, you know, where groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq are trying to target the Sunni Awakening militias, which are the militias that have allied themselves with the Americans after 2007. Then there’s also a significant amount of bombings that target Kurds in the Arab-Kurd battle over control of the north. And then, finally, there are these types of bombings that try — you know, that are attempts to cause massive civilian casualties, especially among the Shiites, and that target Shiite government institutions, as well.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Rick, the significance of these bombings in relation to the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to be held in January? Maliki said they will not disrupt these planned elections. Your sense of that?
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, well, I mean, already — I mean, the Iraqi Parliament has failed to come up with an election law to bring these — you know, to firm up the schedule for these elections because of the continuing dispute between Arabs and Kurds over how the elections will be conducted in the north. But clearly, for — I mean, the US has already said that postponing the elections will postpone the American withdrawal, and clearly, prolonging the American presence in Iraq will be a huge strategic victory for al-Qaeda in Iraq. I mean, it would radically delegitimize both the Iraqi government and the Sunni militia — I mean, the Sunni militias that struck a temporary alliance with the Americans. And it could also draw the Shiite resistance back into the fight. So anything they can do to postpone the elections and to possibly prolong the American presence in the country would be disastrous for Iraq as a nation and would also, you know, be a huge strategic victory for them.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Rick Rowley, I wanted to ask you about the specific ministries that were targeted on Sunday. The Middle East professor at the University of Michigan and blogger Juan Cole writes this: he says, “The particular ministries that were struck may be significant, since Iraq operates on a spoils system and ministries tend to be dominated by political parties and ethnic groups.” He goes on to say, “The Minister of Public Works is Riyadh Gharib, a prominent member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to the clerics in Tehran.” And he also says, “Public Works as a ministry would thus have a lot of ISCI party members as employees and it is also a huge source of political patronage.”
So, your sense of these specific ministries that were targeted and the accusations by al-Maliki that it was al-Qaeda, remnants of al-Qaeda and the Baath regime?
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, well, al-Qaeda in Iraq, first of all — I mean, we have to recognize, al-Qaeda in Iraq is not — only has a linguistic link to al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the group in Afghanistan. It is a homegrown Iraqi Sunni insurgent resistance organization.
And yeah, absolutely, I mean, the government in Baghdad is seen by al-Qaeda in Iraq and by the extremists inside the Sunni resistance as a proxy, as an Iranian proxy, dominated by the Supreme Council and by the Dawa Party, both parties that were — well, I mean, the Supreme Council was formed in Iran, and Dawa, you know, spent most of its existence in Iran. And, you know, these parties were put by the US in mid-2004, were put in charge of the government, and their militias were turned into the core of the Iraqi security structure. So, as the civil war kicked off, the main protagonists in the civil war were militias inside the police force that were — came from these parties and, you know, versus Sunni insurgents on the outside who were doing bombings and these kinds of soft-target attacks on civilians. So, you know, clearly, I mean, institutions and ministries that are controlled by ISCI, the Supreme Council, and by Dawa are definitely seen as sectarian enemies. I mean, the Ministry of Justice, as well, you know, it’s — the police and the court system have been seen in the — I mean, not so much the court system. The police and the prison system in Iraq have been seen as one of the tools in the sectarian fight that the Shiite militias have used from the very beginning.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Rick, the attacks come amidst warnings from the Obama administration now that the planned drawdown of US troops may be reevaluated. We had the Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy saying they may reevaluate the planned withdrawal depending on what happens in January. We also had General Ray Odierno also saying that. There are currently something like 120,000 US troops stationed in Iraq. The significance of the US forces there right now and the plans for withdrawal?
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, well, I mean, I got back from Iraq just a few days ago, and it is pretty clear to most of the soldiers who I talked to on the ground that the plans right now are for some of these massive bases and some of the American troop presence there to stay there past the December 2011 deadline that they have under the current treaty they’ve signed with the — Iraq has signed with America.
I mean, the New York Times reported actually that in the aftermath of these bombings, US Marines were out doing — helping with the investigation of the bombings in the wreckage in Baghdad, which is a departure from the timetable of the Status of Forces Agreement already. I mean, the Americans are not supposed to come back into Baghdad unless they’re invited there specifically by the Iraqi government, which is a pretty, you know, significant loophole, because the American-allied government in Iraq is quite likely to make an invitation if it’s in the interest of their American ally. So it would be — it is easy to imagine this government, the same Maliki government, giving the US permission to stay beyond 2011.
And that would be a total disaster. It would be a major victory for al-Qaeda. You know, first of all, it would radically delegitimize the government and also the Sunni militia, the Awakening groups, that made this temporary alliance with America. And also, I mean, we did an interview in February with Salah al-Obeidi, the spokesman for the Sadr movement, who said that they right now, who — the leaders of the Shiite resistance to the American occupation view the current American timetable for withdrawal as a truce and that they’re waiting to see if the US makes good on its promise for a full withdrawal of all troops by 2011 before beginning attacks again. So a prolonged American presence would be a disaster for Iraq. It would end the Sadr ceasefire. It would strengthen al-Qaeda in Iraq. And it would continue to deepen the sectarian and tribal divisions that have already torn the country apart.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And finally, Rick Rowley, you’ve traveled to Baghdad numerous times over the years, perhaps more than any other unembedded journalist since the war started. Your sense of, well, the media’s reporting right now? We hardly see Iraq in the corporate media discussed at all. Afghanistan is the topic of the day, and Iraq has largely been forgotten. And what is it like reporting from Baghdad right now? And your sense of the media’s coverage in this country of the conflict?
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, Iraq has just vanished from the front lines — from the front pages, as you say. I mean, and the violence continues, dozens of bombings every month, a continuous, steady level of violence, and 120,000 US soldiers there still. I mean, still a massive American presence there, a huge — a huge war and no media scrutiny to parallel the kind of footprint that America has on the ground right there.
I mean, hopefully that will change. I mean, hopefully, as the elections come around, there will be more coverage right now returning to Iraq. But right now, it’s completely out of scale with the importance of the American presence there and the fact that the American occupation isn’t over, it’s continuing. Not only is it going to continue in terms of, you know, a promised American presence there, a massive American presence, through the end of 2011, but it could continue past that, with the massive US embassy that’s remaining there and really institutions that have been put in, political and military institutions that have put in place in Iraq that are going to continue to be, you know, instruments of American power in the area for years and maybe decades to come.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Rick Rowley, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Rick is an independent journalist with Big Noise Films who frequently reports for Al Jazeera. He’s made multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has just returned from Iraq.