French Press Agency Tallies Increasing Violence In Iraq

Nearly 5,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year in sectarian bombings and other terror attacks. Renee Montagne talks to Prashant Rao, the Baghdad bureau chief for AFP, the French Press Agency, which has been keeping a grim tally of the spiraling violence this year in Iraq.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Iraq is not still at war but you wouldn't know that from the death toll there. So far this year, about 5,000 Iraqis have been killed in the kind of violence that shook Baghdad on Monday - eight separate bombings that left at least 30 people dead. Most of the attacks are carried out by Sunni extremists against Shiites - that's Iraq's majority that now dominates the government. It's a sectarian conflict that harkens back to the worst of the fighting when U.S. troops were still there.

The Baghdad bureau of the French press agency AFP has been keeping a tally since last year of the bloodshed and has taken the unusual step of posting that tally on the Web where it's updated daily.

For more, we turned to their Baghdad bureau chief, Prashant Rao. Thanks very much for joining us.

PRASHANT RAO: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: AFP decided to put up its daily casualty count on the Web, as I've just said. Why did AFP decide to do that?

RAO: Well, it got to the point where our numbers weren't tallying with some of the more public numbers that were being published. And we also felt that people weren't paying attention. And, you know, we started publishing more than a year ago when violence was much lower than it is now. But we still felt that some really tragic things were happening in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Among the figures that you've put out that is so stunning is that last month alone, 880-some people died. Let me ask you, how has the civil war next-door in Syria affected Iraq and how much does it have to do with this violence?

RAO: Well, it plays a very big role. Iraq and Syria share a 375-mile border. There's fighters moving on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. The kind of divisions within Syria amply divisions within Iraq. Bashar al-Assad's regime is made up of Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shias, and most of the rebels fighting him are Sunnis. And that sort of has a knock-on effect in Iraq.

Now a lot of Western Iraq is very, very dangerous. Earlier this year, there were three Syrian truck drivers who were driving through the main highway linking Syria to Baghdad, and these three Syrian truck drivers were executed by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which is the al-Qaida group. And then a couple months later, a video surfaced on YouTube of how the executions were carried out. This attack happened on the main highway, in broad daylight. These militants had no fear of any kind of authority figure in terms of the army or the police coming in to stop them.

MONTAGNE: You mentioned the politics behind this violence.

RAO: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Has there been any progress in getting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop the heavy-handed treatment that his Shiite government has doled out to the minority Sunnis?

RAO: There are some elements where treatment of Sunnis is improving. The government seems to be more positive towards the use of the Sahwa, these are Sunni tribal militias that allied with the U.S. military against al-Qaida. And the government has always been fairly ambivalent towards them because - as you said - it's a Shia government and they're mistrustful of these Sunni groups. But, in recent months, there's been greater talk and there's been actual action in terms of reestablishing some of these Sahwa militias to man checkpoints, to carry out patrols in Sunni areas. But there's still a great deal of criticism as to how Sunnis are treated in Iraq - a lot of criticism of the sort of barring of Sunnis from political life. So it's not just the sort of army cracking down, which is another allegation that's made, that the army and the police unfairly come into Sunni houses and target them.

MONTAGNE: Finally, what is daily life like now for Iraqis in the midst of all this violence?

RAO: Unfortunately, a lot of the more, you know - for want of a better word - frivolous things, such is kids playing at neighborhood soccer fields and going to cafes and restaurants, a lot of that has been curbed as the levels of violence have increased. But, you know, the basics of daily life like going to a market, going to the mosque, that has continued.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for speaking with us.

RAO: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Prashant Rao, Baghdad bureau chief for the French news agency AFP.

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