Uptick In Violence Kills Scores In Iraq

Suicide bombers struck police recruits in two Iraqi cities this week. And roadside bombs exploded amid pilgrims heading to the holy city of Kerbala south of the capital Baghdad.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Iraq is going through a wave of violence. It comes as the United States continues reducing its troop levels. This week alone, suicide bombers targeted police and police recruits in the cities of Tikrit and Baquba, both those cities north of Baghdad. And suicide bombers yesterday attacked Shiite pilgrims. They were on their way to an annual religious ceremony in the holy city of Karbala. More than 100 people have died this week, and hundreds more have been injured. And we're going to talk about this with NPR's Kelly McEvers, who reports from Iraq.

Hi, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS: Hi.

INSKEEP: I want to try to get this in context here, because there has been so much violence. How serious is the latest violence in the context of Iraq?

MCEVERS: Well, you know, in general, overall violence is on a downward trend in Iraq. During the sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, you saw hundreds of people being killed here every day. By contrast, last month, there was only about probably a hundred deaths from violence.

In fact, last year, the overall number of attacks was the lowest since the American invasion in 2003. But then you have these surprise attacks that seem to spring out of nowhere. Iraqis always tell me you should never get too complacent. You know, it's just the calm before the storm.

INSKEEP: And these are familiar-sounding attacks. When we hear about attacks on police and police recruits, those kinds of things have happened for years. Who committed the latest attacks, as far as anyone knows?

MCEVERS: So far, no one's claimed responsibility. But in the past, it's been Sunni militant groups, these al-Qaida-affiliated groups who target police recruits and Shiite pilgrims. This is a regular pattern for them.

And when I say al-Qaida-affiliated, I mean that they receive, you know, some guidance and leadership from the larger al-Qaida organization led by Osama bin Laden. But the local group here really is its own thing. It's called the Islamic State of Iraq, and it's been around for several years. You know, they have ministers and regional governors, kind of like a shadow government.

I mean, analysts say their aim is to take revenge against what they see as a U.S.-backed, Shiite-dominated government and, you know, to keep Iraq as unstable as possible, so they can maintain a foothold here.

INSKEEP: Although we should mention that this is in a moment when the United States is backing out of Iraq to a large degree, when the government says they want the United States to back away. Is this really an American problem when there's violence like this?

MCEVERS: You know, less and less so. The Americans continue to hammer home the message that, you know, it's the Iraqis who are taking the lead. It's the Iraqis who are responsible for their own security as they withdraw their troops by the end of this year.

Recently, the Iraqi police did nab a key cell. That cell was responsible for some other major, high-profile attacks recently. And those arrests did provide some interesting information about the Islamic State of Iraq: first, that these men are well-trained, that they carefully plan these attacks in advance -second, that they're really conscious about what gets the most media attention, you know, because they can't launch these huge-scale attacks anymore. So it's getting media attention that's important. And third, it showed that when one cell is caught, another one just moves in and takes its place.

INSKEEP: You just said can't launch these huge attacks anymore. Is that suggesting that the terrorist forces in Iraq are not what they once were?

MCEVERS: That's what Iraqi and American officials insist on. And when you look at the downward trend in numbers, I think that bears out. You don't see these huge attacks with enormous amounts of munitions packed into truck bombs, you know, attacking four hotels at a time, getting into really secure parts of, say, Baghdad or other major cities.

When they attack something like, say, a Christian church, you know, it's something that they know is going to get a lot of media attention. They even choose places - you know, recently the cell that was caught said that they chose the church because it was near media organizations who they knew would cover the story.

INSKEEP: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: Sure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us today from Erbil, Iraq.

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